Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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 Balancing the Health of our Beaches Against the Threat of Unsustainable Coastal Development

By Sharon Roberts-Hodge, Physical Planning Department, Anguilla.

 Presented at a workshop on ‘Wise Coastal Practices for Beach Management’ held at the Teachers Resource Center, The Valley, Anguilla, 12th September 2000.


Anguilla, like other small island states in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) has a very small and fragile ecosystem.  It totals a whopping 35 square miles of flat developable land both inland and coastal.  We often boast of having 32 beaches, almost one for each square mile.  Our beaches, we boast with pride, are some of the best and most pristine in the Caribbean, maybe, even in the world.  If we were to destroy even one of these beaches, or sacrifice one on behalf of development, it would in fact, represent a significant percentage of our islands natural coastal resources, our bread and butter.

Hurricane Luis in 1995 and then Lenny in 1999 did show how vulnerable the beaches and properties on them are. Many of the properties were destroyed or were left protruding onto the beach. This impacted negatively on the economy since many tourists could not be accommodated and consequently many people were, and still are, out of jobs.  The reality is that our beaches are under severe threat.  Information collected over the years from beach monitoring exercises undertaken by the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources, clearly indicates that our beaches, like those in the rest of the Caribbean, are eroding. It is therefore crucial that before development decisions are taken, we must ensure that there is as little degradation done to the environment and to our coastal areas as possible. 

Course of Action Taken

After the passage of Hurricane Luis in 1995 and Lenny in 1999, the Government of Anguilla had a number of studies done that were sponsored by the British Development Division in the Caribbean on the impact of Hurricane Luis on the Coastal and Marine Resources in Anguilla. The aim of these studies was to determine:

(a)    why there was so much coastal damage, and

(b)   to recommend preventative measures to ensure that future storm damage to beaches and coastal properties is minimised. 

The studies revealed that the extensive damage was primarily due to the close proximity of structures to the high water mark. Beaches being one of the most dynamic and fast changing systems in nature, need to move freely landward and seaward. Wherever such movement is impeded by structures, erosion will occur. Therefore, the best way to protect our beaches is to ensure that any permanent structure is well set back from the vegetation line.

Coastal Development Setback Distances

Seeing that it is inevitable that there will be further development in the coastal zone, coastal development setback guidelines were designed for Anguilla.  This was done in the interest of the island’s economic well being to ensure that new coastal developments coming on stream in Anguilla were sustainable. The methodology for these guidelines was developed by Cambers (1996, 1997).  It involved the determination of specific setbacks from the vegetation line being made for each beach.  Hence, the concept of variable setbacks was adopted.  The reason being is that this makes allowances for and takes in consideration the differences in the behaviour, characteristic, erosional history and use of beaches.

Coastal Development Setback Guidelines in Anguilla

Category #   Category Type Development Setback  
Category 1 Cliffs 50-60 ft from the cliff edge
Category 2

Low rocky shores

75-100 ft from the vegetation line
Category 3 Sandy cays Development restricted to piled, wooden structures, actual setbacks as for beaches.
Category 4 Sand and stone beaches

1.   beach bars & restaurants (25 feet) from the vegetation line provided they are wooden and on piles.

2.   All other development categorised by beach, see figure 5, as follows:
Category 1: (60-75 ft) land ward of vegetation line;
Category  2: (75-100 ft) land ward of the vegetation line;
Category  3:  ( 150 ft) land ward of the vegetation line;
Category 4: ( 300 ft) land ward of the vegetation line;

Since the development of these setbacks, the Department of Physical Planning uses them as a guideline and tool for coastal resource management in its decision making on coastal development setbacks.  It provides a framework within which our Department can work to regulate and guide development on the coast.  Unfortunately, these required setbacks are often not adhered to, as many developers choose to exercise their right to appeal to the Executive Council against decisions made by the Land Development Control Committee (LDCC) and are usually successful, in having setback distances reduced significantly and decisions made by the LDCC overturned.  More often than not, such development is not sustainable and proves to be extremely vulnerable to damage during ground seas, storms and hurricanes.

In an Aesop’s fable, a group of mice got together to decide what to do with a cat who was raiding and killing them one by one.  A great proposal was made. It was agreed that a bell be placed on the cat’s neck to warn them of its approach.  They were all celebrating this great idea but stopped suddenly when one asked who would place the bell around the cat’s neck.

This fable is so relevant to the situation in Anguilla today where certain unsustainable development practices will affect the very social and economic fabric of our society and the ability of existing and future generations to enjoy the resources that were passed on to us.  Most people probably understand that there is a need to take some hard decisions with respect to the wise management of our coastal land resources on the island but very few are willing to do it.  The job of “placing the bell on the cat’s neck” is in part the responsibility of the Department of Physical Planning.  (Maybe this is why the Department is so popular in the community!)  However, this mandate can only be fulfilled with the support of all the “mice”.

Sea Walls

The past five years, has confirmed that when permanent structures are built on the coast without fulfilling the required setback distances, they are undermined and erosion occurs.  This happens because these structures are placed on or too close to the dynamic coastal zone i.e. the land that can easily be eroded or washed away.  Hence, houses and hotels along a number of Anguilla’s beaches are increasingly threatened by wave action during ground seas, storms and hurricanes due to erosion. There has always been erosion and accretion along the coast, but this may not have been so apparent in the past since Anguilla’s beaches were undeveloped.

The situation is that beach front property owners claim that their properties could be damaged or destroyed if they are not allowed to build protective sea walls.  Furthermore, as tourism expands, the pressure to further develop the island’s coastline increases.  So now Anguilla faces the challenge of balancing the possibility of loosing beaches and the public’s right to enjoy the beach, against the need of private landowners to protect their property with erosion control structures such as sea walls.

The growing trend of constructing sea walls on our beaches is a sure way to destroy them. Contrary to what some believe, walls can create more problems than they solve. As the high water mark moves inland, the walls will cause the beach to become narrower.  During hurricanes and other tropical storms, the powerful waves will scour at the base of the wall and erode the beach. The force of the water will also be deflected onto adjoining properties and accelerate the erosion of those properties. It must also be recognised that walls on the beach are not aesthetically pleasing. 

The Department of Physical Planning is very sympathetic to the need of landowners to protect their property, but this must be weighted against the repercussions it could have on our fragile coastal resources.  Most certainly, there are cases when walls are necessary for the protection of coastal property. However, they must be properly designed and constructed. Well-designed and constructed walls are very expensive and are a short-term solution. By far, the best long-term solution is to site all structures well behind the vegetation line.  By so doing, the need to build walls to protect these structures will not be critical. To reiterate, the only solution appears to be the establishment of a policy of retreat, requiring that buildings be set back further from the shoreline, and prohibiting sea walls.


Having legislation, policies and guidelines in place does not necessarily guarantee that wise coastal practices in beach management will be automatically carried out. There must also be the political will and courage to support the Department of Physical Planning in the effort to ensure that such planning and coastal management tools as the established setback guidelines are used effectively and efficiently and are adhered to.  After all, what is the point of being entrusted with the responsibility of  “placing the bell on the cat’s neck” only to have it removed shortly thereafter?  It is necessary also for the public to be more proactive and aware of activities and decisions that are made, which have a grave affect on the coastal resources and the social and economic well-being of the community.

The Chinese Philosopher Confucius once said that “the people may be made to follow a course of action, but they may not be made to understand it.”  It is my hope therefore, that this workshop will successfully bridge this gap and provide an eye opener for many of us here today, in that we will leave with more knowledge, a greater understanding and commitment to work together as “mice” to ensure that wise and sustainable coastal practices are adhered to on our beautiful island.

After all, we are all custodians of our coastal environment and the survival of our economy depends heavily on the health of our beaches.  Lets all bear in mind today and afterwards that “people affect their environment and in turn the environment affects people, immensely’’.

Presentation of Video: “Protecting the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg”, a video on coastal setbacks in the Caribbean, extremely relevant to the Anguilla situation

 (Filmed in Grenada with participation from Anguilla).


 Coastal Development Setback

A prescribed distance to a coastal feature, such as the line of permanent vegetation, within which all or certain types of development are prohibited.

Line of Permanent Vegetation

Used as the baseline for setback determination for beaches. This is the tree line or scrub line and can be easily defined and agreed by different observers as it shows only slight change apart from tropical storms and hurricanes.


Cambers, G.  1996.  The impact of Hurricane Luis on the coastal and marine resources of Anguilla: coastal development setback guidelines.  British Development Division in the Caribbean. 39 pages.

Cambers, G.  1997.  Planning for coastline change: Guidelines for construction setbacks in the eastern Caribbean islands.  CSI Info No. 4, UNESCO, Paris. 14 pages.

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