Maine Real Estate

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.

Tired of paying Taxes? Try a Like-Kind Exchange

Death and taxes. Neither can be avoided. However, with some clean living, careful choices, and a little luck the former can be delayed. So can the capital gains tax on the sale of your real estate, which happily only requires some planning.

The tool to make this delay of tax is known as a Like-Kind Exchange, often referred to as a 1031 exchange, from the IRS code of that same number. As of January 2018, this only pertains to real property used productively in business or held for investment and not personal property such as equipment, vehicles, and other such things.

What is a like-kind exchange? Simply put, it is exchanging one property, held for productive use in a trade or business or held for investment, for another property for those same purposes. What it is not? It cannot be used for delaying taxes on real estate which is held primarily for sale, often referred to as dealer property, where it is your business to buy and sell real estate for profit. This will likely be taxed as ordinary income.

Pros and Cons – The benefits of using a like-kind exchange are pretty obvious if growing your real estate investment net worth is your primary goal. Reinvesting equity gain which would otherwise be paid to Uncle Sam in capital gains tax, may net a better return on investment. The downside to the exchange can be the lack of liquidity of real estate in general and less diversification of investments. As an example, if a great stock opportunity became available to you, the equity from the property sale could not be used tax deferred to purchase it.

Is it complicated you ask? We are talking about the IRS, so of course it is. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy. There are several types of exchanges and rules such as time to complete the exchange, naming of properties to exchange into, and not directly receiving the proceeds from the sale of the relinquished property, plus many other potential concerns. The process involved in an exchange can take up many chapters in how-to books, so I will not cover all the details here. The good news is, if you are interested in an exchange, there are professionals out there, such as Qualified Intermediary (QI), CPAs, real estate brokers, and attorneys that can guide you through the process.

If you think that the like-kind exchange is a possible route that you may take, plan it from the day you put your property on the market. Engage the appropriate professionals that are required to help you. Be sure you inform the buyer of your property about your intentions to exchange in both the property disclosure and purchase and sale agreement. This is not necessarily required but certainly will make for a smoother closing.

If you need more information, here are some links to the IRS website and a QI and attorney we have used.

Rudman and Winchell Asset Preservation Inc. IRS Guidelines IRS Form 8824