The Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CoBRA) (PL 97-348) designates certain coastal barrier islands, or portions of these islands, as ineligible for federal flood insurance, as well as for any federal funding for roads, sewers, or other kinds of infrastructure. CoBRA does not prohibit development per se in these areas; it simply restricts federal support of it. Although federal financial assistance is prohibited, CoBRA does allow federal agencies to issue permits for federally regulated activities on barrier islands, such as the discharge of dredge and fill material into waters.
The US Fish & Wildlife Services maintains the official Coastal Barrier Resources System website. This website includes CoBRA Online Mapper and maps of State CoBRA units in a downloadable PDF format.
However, unless a state law or local ordinance prohibits development, owners willing to develop property without federal assistance may do so. So, despite these prohibitions, development does occur on designated barrier islands.
Government Accountability Office (GAO) Review of CoBRA
According to this review**, although most units* (84 percent) have remained undeveloped since their inclusion in the system, three percent of units have experienced significant levels (100 or more new structures) of development. Three primary reasons for the new development were identified: “(1) a combination of commercial interest and public desire to build in the unit, (2) local government support for development to improve the economic base of the area, and (3) the availability of affordable private flood insurance.” Units in the South have experienced greater development then units in the North.
The GAO’s research also revealed that state law can have a profound effect on the fate of individual units. In areas where local governments are pro-development, building continues. In areas where local and state law complemented the federal restrictions, future development is unlikely. In most of the Gulf states, however, little or no development is occurring in CoBRA-designated areas for now.
*areas mapped and designated as Coastal Barrier Resources System units or “otherwise” protected areas. These units are colloquially called CoBRA zones.
**Coastal Barrier Resources System: Status of Development That Has Occurred and Financial Assistance Provided by Federal Agencies. GAO-07-356: Published March 19, 2007