Can I Build a Tiny House on Vacant Land in Maine?

Navigating the web of Maine rules and regulations concerning putting a tiny home onto a vacant lot.

Question

I own a vacant lot in rural Maine that I want to put a tiny house on to use as a cabin. I am not sure whether I will build the tiny house on a permanent foundation or wheels. Are tiny houses legal in Maine? Does it matter whether I build it on a permanent foundation or wheels?

Answer

The answers to your questions will depend on various factors and require you to do site-specific research. Some of the factors that are important include what zoning district of Maine your land is in, what development standards apply, and even perhaps how many nights a year you sleep on your property in the tiny house.

This article provides some background information to help you start the necessary research on tiny houses in Maine. Other available resources include the zoning authority (likely either your local government or the Maine Land Use Planning Commission), local builders who are familiar with the codes and regulations that apply to tiny houses, and even a Maine land use attorney.

Zoning Regulation in Maine

In Maine, zoning authority will lie with either your local municipality (for example, the City of Portland, Maine) or the Maine Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC). The LUPC serves as the planning and zoning authority for over half of Maine, including unorganized and deorganized areas of the state. In short, zoning is the division of land into districts and the regulation of land uses in those districts.

One of the first documents you will want to review is the governing zoning ordinance. Much of rural Maine falls under the control of the LUPC. The LUPC's zoning regulations are in  Chapter 10, "Land Use Districts and Standards"of the LUPC's Rules and Standards.

For rural property, the LUPC's zoning regulations will likely apply. If your township has zoning authority, check its website for a copy of the ordinance or contact the township to find out where you can get a copy.

Once you identify the applicable zoning regulations, you will need to determine, if you do not already know, how your vacant lot is zoned. For example, if your land falls under the control of the LUPC, it will likely be classified as a major district (Protection, Management, or Development) and a subdistrict (such as Commercial and Industrial, Rural Settlement, and Residential Recreation).

The zoning ordinance should have a zoning map you can look at to determine what zoning district you are in. If you are unsure about your zoning, call the local planning department and ask.

If your Maine property is near water, it is also a good idea to be familiar with the Maine Shoreland Zoning Act (MSZA). The MSZA requires municipalities to adopt and enforce local ordinances that regulate land use near many bodies of water. The MSZA includes land within:

  • 250 feet of the normal high-water line of any Great Pond, river, or saltwater body
  • 250 feet of any coastal wetland
  • 250 feet of any freshwater wetland, or
  • 75 feet of any stream.

If your property is in the Shoreland Zone, additional regulations will likely apply to any development on your property.

In addition to any applicable zoning ordinance, other rules and laws may apply to the development of your Maine property. For example, environmental, solid waste, and stormwater control regulations, are common. Be sure to understand each regulation before you begin development.

What Does This All Mean For Tiny Houses in Maine?

Tiny houses often fall into a gray area in the law, especially tiny houses on wheels. Zoning regulations may allow a tiny house on a foundation as a single-family residence. But if a zoning authority has a minimum dwelling size requirement, for example, 800 square feet, it may not be possible to build a "tiny house."

Alternatively, a tiny house on wheels may fit the definition of a “recreational vehicle” (“RV”) and be considered a camping use. Under the LUPC, the closest related use is "Residential Campsite." Under the LUPC’s rules, in some zones non-commercial campsites with minimal permanent development are allowed. Check with the LUPC to see if a tiny house on wheels is allowed on your property and, if so, whether or not you can leave it there year round.

Another example is in North Yarmouth, Maine. There, camping is legal in certain zones so long as:

  • it is on a lot existing before the date of the ordinance or larger than 30,000 square feet
  • all setbacks are complied with
  • you do not build a permanent foundation
  • a written sewage disposal plan is in place, and
  • if the RV is on the lot for more than 120 days, all requirements for residential structures are met, including subsurface sewage disposal.

See the complete  North Yarmouth land use ordinance  for details.

You will need to review the applicable zoning ordinance carefully to see what uses are allowed on your vacant lot and whether your intended use of a tiny house as a cabin is allowable. Among other questions, consider these as you review the code:

  • Is there a minimum dwelling size requirement?
  • How large does my lot have to be to build a dwelling (is there a minimum lot size)?
  • If building a tiny house on wheels, is it lawful to "camp" on my property?
  • If so, what restrictions apply (for example, how many nights a month or a year can I camp on my lot)?
  • Are there any other development standards that apply (such as building height restrictions, road access, and setbacks)?

Building and Safety Codes May Apply to Your Maine Tiny House

In most cases, if your tiny house fits the definition of a "dwelling" and is built on a permanent foundation, it will need to comply with the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code (MUBEC). In some cases, a tiny house will meet the definition of a manufactured home or modular home. Safety standards apply to manufactured homes and modular homes as well.

If you plan to put your tiny house on a trailer with wheels, check with the governing jurisdiction to learn what, if any, building standards will apply. It is possible the tiny house on wheels will need to be certified to meet some safety standards like those applied to recreational vehicles.

Preliminary considerations like whether it is feasible to build your tiny house and how much it will cost to build it are directly impacted by these standards. Before purchasing or beginning construction, be sure to understand what safety standards and building codes apply to your tiny house.

Hire an Attorney to Make Sure You Are Aware of All Maine Laws and Regulations

Failing to comply with all laws and regulations on developing a vacant lot in Maine, whether with a tiny house or any other use, may lead to a fine and you may have to remove your tiny house.

To protect yourself, hiring a Maine land use attorney is a good idea. Other experts, such as a tiny house builder, may be useful resources as well.

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