Can I Build a Tiny House in My Backyard in Maine?

How land-use laws apply to tiny houses in Maine.

Question

I live in Maine and want to put a tiny house in my backyard. I am not sure if I will rent it out or use it as an art studio. My neighbors have a tiny house on wheels that they use for an office. In Maine, is it legal to have a tiny house in your backyard?

Answer

Whether a tiny house is legal will depend on facts specific to your property, including where you live and how large your backyard is. It will also depend on whether your house is on wheels or you build it on a permanent foundation, and how you intend to use the tiny house.

The tiny house movement is relatively new, so land use planners are only now beginning to address tiny houses. In fact, Portland, Maine issued a policy statement on tiny houses that states the city is looking into tiny houses, but that it may take some time to implement any necessary changes. Local governments in Maine do not all treat tiny houses the same, so you will need to research the regulations in your specific jurisdiction to determine whether a tiny house is legal in your backyard.

Zoning Regulations Control Land Development

In a case like this, a good place to start your research is the applicable zoning ordinance. For municipalities that have adopted a zoning ordinance (sometimes called a "development code"), a copy of the code is usually available online. If not, you can contact the local planning department to get a copy.

If you live in an “unorganized” or “deorganized” part of Maine, your property falls under the jurisdiction of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission ("LUPC"). If your property is in an unorganized or deorganized part of Maine, pay particular attention to Chapter 10 of the LUPC’s rules.

A zoning ordinance consists of two primary components: a zoning map and the text. The zoning map classifies property into different zoning districts. For example, your property might be in a single-family residential, multi-family residential, or even a mixed-use zone. What zone your property is in, as reflected on the map, is important because different land uses are allowed in different zones.

Also look to see whether your property is located in an overlay zone, like a wildlife protection area or a historic district. And lastly, Maine is known for its Shoreland Zoning Act, so if you live near a body of water, there may be additional development restrictions that apply.

The text of the zoning ordinance will list what uses are allowed in each zone and the applicable development standards. For instance, permitted uses in a single-family residential zone may include single-family dwellings, accessory uses, and home occupations. The ordinance may also include a provision that states that if a use is not expressly allowed by the language within it, that use is prohibited. Different jurisdictions use different terms and definitions, so review the applicable ordinance carefully to determine whether your planned use is lawful.

Development standards (sometimes called "performance standards") include criteria for things like roads and access, off-street parking, setbacks, and minimum dwelling sizes.

Even if a tiny house is lawful in your backyard, you will still have to be able to build it in compliance with these standards. For example, setbacks may require that your tiny house be located five feet from side property lines and ten feet from rear property lines. If you cannot comply with the applicable development standards, you may not be able to legally build your tiny house unless you can obtain a variance (receiving a variance can be a challenge, so make sure you understand the costs and likelihood of success before applying for a variance in advance).

As to tiny houses, it is possible that a tiny house built on a foundation may be legally used as an accessory dwelling (sometimes called a “mother-in-law suite” or similar term). It is much less likely that a tiny house on wheels can legally be used as a dwelling, although some communities may be more welcoming toward tiny houses than others. Other “accessory uses”, like a home office or art studio, will be held to a lesser standard because they are not used for habitation. You will need to determine what the underlying use of your tiny house will be and then review the applicable zoning ordinance carefully to see if it is lawful.

Local Maine Building and Safety Standards Will Apply

Even if zoning allows your tiny house, it may still need to comply with building and safety standards. For instance, a tiny house built on a foundation that will be used as a dwelling will need comply with Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code ("MUBEC") and any other applicable building and safety codes. The MUBEC is made up of several other uniform codes, including the 2009 International Residential Code ("IRC"). The 2009 version of the IRC requires one habitable room 120 square feet (compared to the 2015 IRC which eliminated that requirement). This can make building a tiny house on a foundation difficult depending on the size of the tiny house.

Again, what standards apply will come down to how the tiny house will be used. It likely also depends on whether the tiny house will be built on a foundation or be on wheels. To determine what construction standards will apply, you should talk to a local tiny house expert and the local building department.

Talk to a Maine Land Use Attorney

If you do not comply with the zoning ordinance, you can be subject to a code enforcement action and an economic penalty. As an example of how expensive that can be, in Portland, the city can fine you between $100 and $2,500 per day for a code violation. You will also have to fix the violation, which may include removing your tiny house. That can be expensive and inconvenient (even if the tiny house is on wheels).

Hiring a Maine land-use attorney is a good idea in order to avoid this risk. Before you spend time and money developing your backyard with a tiny house, your attorney can help determine what uses are lawful and what you need to do to comply with the law.

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