Australia: NSW Coastal Planning Guidelines

Last Updated: 29 September 2010
Article by Charmian Barton and Paul Vergotis

On 20 August 2010, the NSW Department of Planning released the final NSW Coastal Planning Guideline: Adapting to Sea Level Rise to provide guidance on how sea level rise is to be considered in land use planning and development assessment in coastal NSW.

The Guideline

The Guideline applies to all coastal areas of NSW, including the NSW Coastal Zone, as well as Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay. The term 'coastal areas' is used broadly to include the coastline, beaches, coastal lakes, bays and estuaries, as well as the tidal reaches of coastal rivers. It also includes other low-lying land surrounding these areas that may be subject to coastal processes in the future as a consequence of sea level rise.

A risk-based approach has been adopted to strategic land use planning and development assessment in coastal areas. It takes into consideration the NSW Government's Sea Level Rise Policy Statement (2009) that specifies sea level rise planning benchmarks of an increase above 1990 mean sea levels of 40cm by 2050 and 90cm by 2100, and also states that responsibility for coastal protection work rests with landowners.

The Guideline is structured around six coastal planning principles that must be applied in decision-making processes in coastal areas:

Principle 1 - Assess and evaluate coastal risks taking into account the NSW sea level rise planning benchmarks.

Principle 2 - Advise the public of coastal risks to ensure that informed land use planning and development decision-making can occur.

Principle 3 - Avoid intensifying land use in coastal risk areas through appropriate strategic and land use planning.

Principle 4 - Consider options to reduce land use intensity in coastal risk areas where feasible.

Principle 5 - Minimise the exposure of development to coastal risks.

Principle 6 - Implement appropriate management responses and adaptation strategies, with consideration for the environmental, social and economic impacts of each option.

Identifying coastal risk areas - Principles 1 & 2

The sea level rise planning benchmarks must be used in coastal hazard and flood studies to identify immediate and future hazard lines based on the NSW Government's:

Coastline Management Manual (1990)

Floodplain Development Manual (2005)

Coastal Risk Management Guide: Incorporating the sea level rise benchmarks in coastal hazard assessments (2010)

Flood Risk Management Guide: Incorporation the sea level rise benchmarks in flood risk assessments (2010).

Coastal erosion hazards often depicted on maps as immediate, 50 year and 100 years lines, which show areas of potential impact, must now consider sea level rise planning benchmarks by identifying hazard lines, as well as future hazard lines to 2050 and 2100. Similarly, flood studies, which generally depict the 1 in 100 year average recurrence interval (ARI) and the probable maximum flood (PMF) lines on maps, must also model the impact of sea level rise to 2050 and 2100.The 100 year ARI is equivalent to the 1% annual exceedance probability (AEP), which represents a 1% chance of such a flood occurring in any given year.

Section 733 of the Local Government Act 1933 (NSW) provides councils with an exemption from liability for advice provided or action undertaken relating to coastal hazard if it is done in good faith, which includes, but is not limited to, acting substantially in accordance with the principles in the Coastline Management Manual or Floodplain Development Manual, which have been gazetted.

Planning certificates issued under s 149 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW) must include reference to coastal risks where there is an adopted policy that restricts development of the specific parcel of land.

Strategic and land use planning in coastal areas - Principles 3 & 4

The Guideline states that the following factors should be considered as part of the strategic planning process:

  • incorporating coastal risk studies into strategic planning.
  • considering the effects of protection works on land use capability.
  • accommodating new growth in coastal communities.
  • managing existing developed areas in coastal communities.
  • maintaining foreshore access, amenity and open space and protecting coastal environments.

These coastal risk strategic planning considerations should directly inform the preparation of planning proposals, Local Environmental Plans and Development Control Plans. The aim of coastal land use planning is to avoid, and potentially reduce, land use intensification in coastal risk areas to prevent creating or exacerbating risks to property or life due to sea level rise.

Development assessment in coastal areas - Principles 5 & 6

The Guideline outlines a process for considering sea level rise in the preparation and assessment of development applications in coastal areas. The process involves an assessment of the risk relating to the location and type of proposed development, and an assessment against the following planning criteria:

  • avoid or minimise exposure to immediate coastal risks (seaward of the immediate hazard line);
  • provide for the safety of residents, workers or other occupants on-site from risks associated with coastal processes;
  • avoid adversely affecting the safety of the public off-site from a change in coastal risks as a result of the development;
  • avoid increasing coastal risks to properties adjoining or within the locality of the site;
  • ensure infrastructure, services and utilities on-site maintain their function and achieve their intended design performance;
  • accommodate natural coastal processes including those associated with projected sea level rise;
  • ensure coastal ecosystems are protected from development impacts; and
  • ensure existing public beach, foreshore or waterfront access and amenity is maintained.


As a consequence of sea level rise, there is likely to be an increase in the frequency, duration and height of coastal flooding in low lying areas, resulting in emergency evacuations and likely property and infrastructure damage. Areas where tidal waters currently flow back up the stormwater system during king tides will also be subject to more frequent tidal inundations under changing climatic condition. The Guideline aims to address these potential risks from sea level rise in coastal areas as part of the land use planning and development assessment process.

For developers, this means considering potential sea level rise when preparing proposals. Failure to do so could result in a refusal or challenge to an approval. Councils should undertake strategic planning to identify areas exposed to sea level rise, and develop policies to guide future decision making. Consent authorities will also need to ensure that sufficient information is provided with development proposals on sea level rise before reaching a determination.

© DLA Phillips Fox

DLA Phillips Fox is one of the largest legal firms in Australasia and a member of DLA Piper Group, an alliance of independent legal practices. It is a separate and distinct legal entity. For more information visit

This publication is intended as a first point of reference and should not be relied on as a substitute for professional advice. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in relation to any particular circumstances.

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