The Shoreland Shuffle
CONVERSATIONS – July 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
A primer on navigating the complexities of shoreland zoning
Many images come to mind when someone says “Maine,” but the vision of wide-open water is usually one of the first. Considering that Maine has more coastline than any other state in the country, not to mention thousands of lakes, rivers, and ponds, it only makes sense that the state would have some of the most desirable shorefront real estate in the country. Yet the joys of owning waterfront property are often tempered by the realities of Maine’s progressive Shoreland Zone laws which place restrictions on new home construction and renovation projects on land situated in environmentally sensitive locations
While the following primer is not an all-encompassing explanation of Shoreland Zone laws, it is intended to make them less intimidating than they might appear at first glance. With a little information, some planning, and the advice of a few professionals, working within the confines of these laws is not nearly as overwhelming as you might expect. For those of us who cherish Maine’s coast and waterfront, it is important to remember that the laws are meant to, as the Town of Kennebunk’s Code Enforcement Officer Paul Demers points out, “preserve the very reason you want to live there in the first place: the water.” With many long stretches of beachfront property to oversee in Kennebunk, Demers has significant experience working with Shoreland Zone regulations, and he was kind enough to share his expertise with Maine Home + Design.
Know Your CEO
Since any shorefront site is, by definition, an environmentally sensitive area, and any building or rebuilding projects could have a harmful ecological impact if done improperly, Code Enforcement Officers would much rather answer questions in advance than fine people after the damage is done. A simple call to your local CEO cannot only save a lot of time, money, and hassle, it can also help save Maine’s delicate ecosystem and wildlife.
The History & Specifics
In 1971, Maine enacted the “Mandatory Shoreland Zoning Law,” which was expanded and amended in 1989 and 1990. According to the current ordinance, the Shoreland Zone includes all land within “250 feet of the high-water line of any pond over 10 acres, any river that drains at least 25 square miles, and all tidal waters and saltwater marshes; 250 feet of a freshwater wetland over 10 acres; and 75 feet of a stream.” Pretty much any new constructions, renovations, or landscape that work within these zones are going to be restricted in one way or another.
While the state-determined zone sizes mentioned above provide a general rule of thumb, Demers warns, municipalities are allowed to adopt their own shoreland ordinances—as long as they are even more stringent than the state’s. This makes it crucial for anyone considering work within these zones to visit their local town hall and get to know their code enforcement officer. According to the state, Shoreland Zone laws are “primarily administered through each municipality, and the local code enforcement officer is usually the first point of contact on Shoreland Zoning issues.”
Since restrictions are often easier to stomach when you understand why they exist in the first place, it should be noted that the state believes Shoreland Zone laws help to, among other things, “prevent and control water pollution; protect fish spawning grounds, bird and wildlife habitats; protect buildings and lands from flooding and accelerated erosion.”
Straight to the Source
To obtain more information on Shoreland Zones directly from the state, visit the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s website for the Bureau of Land and Water Quality: www.maine.gov/dep/blwq. To receive a copy of A Handbook for Shoreland Owners, call 207- 287-3901 or email [email protected]
Beyond controlling storm-water runoff and erosion with proper silt fencing, hay bales, or diversion ditches during the construction phase, there are two key factors that must be considered when building a new home in a Shoreland Zone: setback and lot coverage.
Shoreland Zone sizes should not be confused with “setback,” or how far away from a water resource a structure must be located. In a residential district along a beach, large pond, and some rivers, new constructions must be set back at least 100 feet from the high-water mark, while structures on smaller rivers, streams, and wetlands can be situated 25 feet closer. “You should always get a surveyor involved early in the process,” says Demers, “so you know exactly what you’re dealing with.”
New construction often creates “impervious” areas that no longer absorb rainfall in the same manner, or to the same degree, as an undisturbed natural habitat, which often leads to increased runoff into nearby bodies of water. Because higher runoff can pollute water resources and harm wildlife, new construction in a Shoreland Zone can only cover 20 percent of a building lot. This means that a one-acre lot, for example, can only include roughly 8,300 square feet of impervious area. And it’s important to note that the square footage considered to be impervious includes any non-vegetated surface, such as driveways, garages, and paths.
Demers often encourages people to find creative ways to work within the zoning restrictions. “None of these restrictions are things that should scare a good contractor,” he says. One such creative solution, for instance, is lattice-shaped paving blocks. These blocks are generally made of stone or brick, and they can be used to create driveways in place of tar or concrete. Because these blocks can support the weight of vehicles while also allowing grass to grow in the holes and water to drain through, they can reduce the total impervious coverage of your driveway by as much as 50 percent.
The Golden Rule: Use Local Contractors
Work with builders and landscapers who understand the regulations that apply to your site. “Try to use people within your community who have an intimate knowledge of the specific area,” Demers recommends.
Homes constructed within the current setback limits—but before the state’s ordinance was enacted—are referred to as non-conforming or “grandfathered.” Non-conforming structures can be repaired, renovated, and maintained, but their expansion is restricted. Any structure, or portion of a structure, that falls within the required setback cannot be expanded toward the water, and its size cannot be increased by more than 30 percent. But here’s the tricky part: this percentage is based on both floor area and structural volume. While “floor area” includes all floors, porches, and decks, “volume” refers to any space contained within the roof and fixed walls. “If you’ve got a non-conforming structure you’re considering expanding,” Demers says, “you should hire an architect immediately.”
Let’s consider an example of how this 30 percent rule might work. Say you have a non-conforming beach cottage with 1,000 square feet of floor area and roughly 10,000 cubic feet of volume. You could legally add both a 300-square-foot deck (but not on the shorefront side) and a dormer that adds 3,000 cubic feet to the home. You could not, however, decide to enclose the porch at a later time because your total allowed percentage has already been used. “The 30 percent expansion isn’t per project,” Demers clarifies, “it’s over the life of the house.”
Demers recommends that, “if you’re buying a non-conforming house, you should always verify whether or not previous permits were pulled to be sure you know if portions of that 30 percent have been previously used.” While these records are available in your local town hall, real estate agents sometimes overlook them during the sales process.
While many home buyers know that certain aspects of Shoreland Zone constructions and renovations are restricted, most are unaware that disturbing vegetation is also against the law in many cases. Ask your local CEO what restrictions apply to your site before you do any landscaping or extensive yard work. If you chop down a few sea roses or a scraggily old spruce, you might not only be fined, but you could also be ordered to pay for the replanting.
Avoid Problems by Planning
It is not unheard of, Demers says, for a new home construction to be ordered torn down for violations of Shoreland Zone laws. And it’s fairly common for homeowners—who are either working on their own or with unknowledgeable contractors—to have severe fines imposed upon them. All of this is unnecessary, Demers says, and can be easily avoided with a little homework and planning: “The more information you have when you talk with your code enforcement officer, the easier the whole process will be.”