Legal Restrictions Affecting Your Plans to Build a Home on Coastal Land

Planning to build a house on the ocean or other shoreline? Special laws and regulations may limit your building plans and procedures for getting approval.

You’ve always wanted to have a house that overlooks the ocean. Now, you’ve found a beautiful piece of land with a view of the waves. But before you commit yourself to a substantial financial outlay, you want to know what kinds of regulations apply to the construction of your new home.

What Types of Coastal Lands Come With Restrictions on Building?

Generally, the use of any land that borders the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans or one of the Great Lakes, or a navigable river, is subject to federal regulation. At the state level, definitions of uses of coastal land that are subject to regulation may range from “water-dependent” to “water-related” to “water-enhanced” to “non-water-dependent.” These terms have different meanings in different states.

To find out about whether your intended use of the land is subject to federal or state regulation, check with your state’s Coastal Zone Management agency or commission.

Federal Laws Governing New Construction on Coastal Lands

Generally, the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), which is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is responsible for coordinating federal, state and local regulation of new construction on federally protected coastal lands. As a practical matter, NOAA ensures that federal regulatory concerns are reflected in state and local regulation of coastal land uses. Actual implementation of relevant federal, state, and local laws is typically incorporated in applicable state and local laws, ordinances, and regulations.

Other federal laws, like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, may apply to particular uses, like building a new dock. Unusual situations, for example, new construction within the Cape Cod National Seashore, may be subject to additional and more stringent regulation.

State and Local Regulation of New Construction on Coastal Lands

State and local authorities add another layer of government regulation to the management of new construction in coastal lands. Often, applicable state and local regulation follows guidelines set out in a state or local Master Plan, and may take the form of zoning regulations, environmental protection regulations, or other specialized municipal regulations (for example, the designation of areas in which the use of motorized vehicles is prohibited).

Typically, such regulations govern overall site density, minimum setbacks from the ocean or river bank, the kinds of uses that are permitted and their minimum distance from the coast line (for instance, septic systems), the size of the proposed new construction, and even its design and construction. Sight line and other aesthetic regulations may apply as well.

Of course, the usual zoning and other regulations that apply to new construction apply to new construction in a coastal region as well.

Interlocking federal, state and local regulation may be extensive and complicated, and the penalties for non-compliance (such as a cease and desist, or stop-work, order that requires you to tear down any work you’ve done and restore the site to its previous condition) can be extremely expensive. Before you commit funds to anything beyond a simple design plan, check online with your state and town’s land use or environmental protection agencies and commissions to get an overall sense of the scope and intensity of the regulations that will apply to you.

“Private” Impacts on New Construction on Coastal Lands

In a very few states, like Maine, owners of coastal property own their land to the “mean low tide line.” At the same time, a public easement, well established in longstanding common law, grants the public the limited use (for example, for fishing) of the area between the high water line and the mean low tide line. Be mindful that you aren’t allowed to do anything with your land that interferes with the public’s right to use the intertidal zone, such as build a barrier fence or install a dock or walkway that prevents people from walking the length of the zone.

Along with the incomparable beauty of a seashore home comes a plethora of public and private regulation of uses that might adversely impact the environmentally sensitive areas that create that beauty. A consultation with an experienced environmental or land use attorney before you commit to purchase a beachfront property is well advised.

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