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Maine Shoreland Zoning Rules 101

Before you purchase that lake, ocean or river front land, home or cabin in Maine, you should know a little about shoreland zoning rules. This includes all area within 250 feet of the normal high water mark of the water feature. Knowing the basic rules will help you better select a property that meets your expectations.

As Mainers, we often take good water quality for granted. It is well protected here, but that is not the case in every state. Recognizing the value of water quality to fish, wildlife and us humans, the state adopted shoreland rules with beginnings in the 1970’s that continue to be updated today. The reasons for mandatory shoreland zoning are many, including such goals as preventing water pollution, protecting wildlife habitat, and conserving the scenic beauty of our special places to name a few.

The rules do depend on where the property is located, either organized or unorganized township. Also, what property type you are going purchase, such as an unimproved waterfront parcel or an existing residential structure. Also, please note that every organized town can have slightly different rules depending on the ordinance they have adopted, but all will comply with the minimum requirements. Check in the code enforcement officer (CEO) of the town to get the local ordinance.

For unimproved lots, here are the basics.

  • Minimum Lot Size – For tidal areas 30,000 square feet ( just less than 7/10 of an acre) For non-tidal areas 40,000 square feet (just over 9/10 of an acre)
  • Minimum Water Frontage – For tidal areas 150 feet For non-tidal areas 200 feet
  • Minimum Lot Width – within 100 feet of the high water mark shall be equal to or greater that the required water frontage.
  • Minimum Set Back for buildings – For great ponds and rivers flowing to great ponds 100 feet from the high water mark. For other water bodies, 75 feet from the normal high water mark.
  • Vegetative Clearings – This is a probably the most misunderstood of all shoreland rules. Review the ordinance for formulas to use prior to any harvesting of trees and/or other vegetation and do consult with the CEO prior to beginning to avoid possible fines and other penalties.

If you are purchasing a non-conforming ( AKA “grandfathered”) structure the rules for additions, expansions and other changes can vary a lot depending on the size, setback, height and other features of the structure. All of these changes will at a minimum require CEO approval, commonly planning board approval.

There are many exceptions to the above. This can be a complex topic, so I have provided a link to the Maine Department of Environmental guidelines here should you need additional information.