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Maine Waterfront Real Estate FAQ

Are there regulations that cover the use, improvement and/or development of waterfront property?

Answer: Yes. In recognition of the importance of the shorelands of Maine’s lakes, rivers, wetlands and the ocean to the state’s environment and economy, a Shoreland Zoning Act was first enacted in 1971. Since then, these controls have been revised and expanded. This act established minimum zoning standards for all towns and municipalities to adopt, and gave the state an oversight role. IMPORTANT: Local governments had to meet these requirements, but they could be more stringent than the state’s guidelines, so with any specific property/project,it is important to contact the local government. Towns have the role of issuing permits, appointing a Code Enforcement Officer to enforce the ordinances, and collect fees and record all transactions.

What are considered shoreland areas?

Answer: 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. All land within 250 feet of a freshwater wetland over 10 acres. All land within 75 feet of streams that are an outlet of great ponds or streams below the confluence of 2 perennial streams. The municipalities must map these areas and establish districts or zones within these areas for protected districts and residential, commercial or mixed-use districts.

How is the distance from a water body measured?

Answer: It is measured horizontally from the normal high water line, or in the case of a wetland, the “upland edge”. It is NOT the uphill distance.

What about buildings, lots and uses that do not meet current standards?

Answer: These are “non-conforming” and usually pre-date the ordinance. A common situation is where a building is sited too close to the water. These non-conforming uses may be repaired, renovated and maintained without a permit, provided no expansion occurs.

Does that mean no expansion is possible?

Answer: No. The law does not permit any expansion towards the water if the structure is already less than the required setback. However, a non conforming structure that existed on January 1, l989 may be expanded less than 30% (based on the floor area and volume of the structure),but only to the part of the building that is within the required setback – and, of course, with a permit. Local municipalities may adopt some other alternatives to the 30% rule. See the local ordinance.

What else can be done with a non-conforming structure?

Answer: It may be possible to build a new or enlarged basement under the structure. It may be possible to relocate the structure. If a building is damaged or destroyed and loses more than 50 % of its value, it may be possible to rebuild it. See the local ordinance.

What is the minimum lot size allowed?

Answer: Shore frontage (the width of the lot at the waterfront) and overall lot sizes standards vary, depending on the type of use and type of water body. Generally, the following minimum standards apply:

  Tidal Waters Inland Waters
Residential Lot Size: 30,000 square feet 40,000 square feet
Residential Lot Frontage: 150 ft. shore frontage 200 ft. shore frontage
Commercial Lot Size: 40,000 square feet 60,000 square feet
Commercial Frontage 200 ft. shore frontage 300 ft. shore frontage

The minimum lot width within 100 feet of the shoreline can be no less than the shore frontage standard. Note: Land below normal high-water and roads cannot be included in the lot area.The frontage and lot size requirement applies to each principal structure or dwelling unit.

What about a lot that doesn’t meet these minimum standards?

Answer: A non-conforming lot that predates the localordinance may be built upon either with or without a variance, depending on the situation, See the local Code Enforcement Officer.

What are the minimum setback requirements?

Answer: The setback for structures on great ponds or rivers flowing into great ponds is 100 feet. A 75 foot setback applies to all other water bodies, streams and wetlands.

Are there height restrictions?

Answer: Yes. The maximum height of a new or expanded structure is 35 feet, measured from the downhill side of the building to the roof peak. Additionally, the first floor must be at least one foot above the 100 year flood elevation. See the local town office.

Are there lot coverage requirements?

Answer: Yes. Because solid surfaces increase runoff, the total area of a lot coverage by structures, driveways, parking areas, decks, patios, and other non-vegetated surfaces is limited to 20% in shoreland areas.

What about roads, driveways and parking areas?

Answer: The setbacks are generally the same as for structures, But there are specific requirements as to banks, grades and drainage that should be investigated. See the local Code Enforcement Officer.

Are there erosion control requirements?

Answer: Yes. Before any development is undertakes, it is essential that state and local standards be investigated. In the case of earth disturbance within 100 feet of a water resource, a permit may be required for excavating, filling, grading, placing riprap, maintaining or replacing structures including docks and retaining walls. Stormwater vegetated buffers, while not always required, are strongly encouraged to help prevent erosion and polluted runoff into water bodies.

Any advice on septic systems?

Answer: Yes. Septic systems can work effectively for 25 years or more if properly maintained. But its often a case of out of sight, out of mind. A system can be failing or polluting nearby surface water without there being visible signs. So before purchasing property with a septic system, ask for documentation on design, location and maintenance, look for signs of failure and have the system professionally inspected.

What about cutting trees and clearing vegetation?

Answer: On great ponds and rivers flowing into them, there is a 100 foot buffer zone:

  • No more than 40% of the total volume of trees over 4 inches in diameter may be harvested in any 10 year period.
  • Vegetation less than 3 feet in height, including ground cover, cannot be removed.
  • Pruning the lower 1/3 of tree branches within the buffer is permitted.

On all other water bodies the buffer zone is 75 feet and clearing is limited to 40% of volume in a 10 year period and no cleared openings. Also within these buffer zones:

  • No opening within the forest canopy can exceed 250 square feet.
  • A winding footpath is allowed, its width depending on the body of water.
  • Selective cutting is allowed according to an established rating system.
  • Clearing beyond the buffer zones and timber harvesting is also regulated. See the local ordinances.

What if I buy a “seasonal” camp in the shoreland zone. Can I convert it to a permanent, year-round home?

Answer: Yes. But you may be required to obtain a seasonal conversion permit from the local Plumbing Inspector to ensure adequate subsurface wastewater disposal systems are in place to handle increased usage.

Can I establish a campsite on a shoreland parcel?

Answer: Private campsites are subject to the following standards:

  • only one site per 30,000 square feet of lot is permitted;
  • tents, recreational vehicles, cars, trailers, etc., must be set back 100 feet from a Great Pond, or river flowing to a Great Pond, and 75 feet from other water bodies;
  • no permanent foundation, except for a gravel pad, is allowed;
  • clearing in the Resource Protection District is limited to 1000 square feet;
  • approval of the method of sewage disposal is required from the Local Plumbing Inspector; and if the camper, tent, vehicle, or shelter is on-site for more than 120 days of the year, residential structure and sewage standards must be met.

What about drinking water?

Answer: While it is permissible to pull water from a lake or river, the problems are potability and freezing of waterlines, so this is typically a seasonal source for uses other than drinking. Drilled wells (often called artesian here) are the best permanent source, with the probability of finding water in Maine being excellent. For an already developed property with a water source, water quality, quantity and the performance of the systems should be tested by a lab and/or a well contractor.

Will I be required to use a local attorney when purchasing property in Maine?

Answer: In Maine, as in all of New England, real estate transactions are traditionally handled by attorneys. They do the title searches, arrange for title insurance, prepare all the necessary documents, preside over the closing and disburse the funds. Usually there is a seller’s attorney and a buyer’s attorney for each transaction. So, although it is not essential, the use of a local attorney is highly recommended. Additionally, if you are financing a purchase, the lending institution may require that the attorney be on their approved list.

Other than the usual closing costs on real estate purchases, are there any other costs specific to Maine?

Answer: Yes. Maine charges a transfer tax on all real estate sales or transfers. This tax is split between the buyer and seller unless otherwise specified or agreed to by both parties. The amount of the tax is $2.20 per thousand dollars of the sales price. Also, for sellers not a resident of Maine, there is a withholding tax of 2 1/2% of the sales price for properties selling for more than $50,000, pending submission of your tax return.

How are property taxes determined in Maine?

Answer: Each town makes an annual budget. The residents/voters/taxpayers vote to either approve or adjust the budget at the annual town meetings. This total budget amount is divided by the total valuations of all the properties in the town, as determined by the local assessor, to arrive at a “mil” rate (tax rate). This rate is applied to the assessed value of each property to arrive at its tax due for the year. The state mandates that assessed value of each property must be within 70 to 110% of market value. The property tax amount for the previous year is usually given on a property’s listing form.

Further Information: Please note that these questions and answers are only intended as an overview, particularly with regard to zoning issues. If you would like more comprehensive information, we would suggest you order the handbook “Maine Shoreland Zoning – A Handbook for Shoreland Owners” from us by emailing, putting “Shoreland Handbook” in the subject box, and we will send it to you promptly.