Buying and Building on the Waterfront

Waterfront property is subject to regulations that other properties are not, something that many first-time waterfront buyers overlook.

A room with a view, really an outdoor room with a view, to be exact. That’s what Mark DeLaurentis was looking for when he put a gazebo about 50 feet from the shoreline on his waterfront property.

It wasn’t long before DeLaurentis heard from the local planning and zoning department. “I had no idea that I couldn’t put a small gazebo out there,” he says. What followed was a two-month battle with the county that included threats of daily $150 fines until he moved the gazebo past the 100-foot buffer line set by the State of Maryland. “It’s intuitive that when you put in a pool, you need a permit and there will be setback regulations, but a gazebo?” says DeLaurentis. “That’s not something most people would think they couldn’t do.”

Waterfront property is subject to regulations that other properties are not, something that many first-time waterfront buyers overlook. While DeLaurentis’s gazebo episode wasn’t particularly costly, it could have been. “It breaks my heart when people buy a piece of property with the intention of building their dream home, spending as much as $2 million, only to find out after the fact that they can’t build what they wanted,” says Catherine Purple Cherry, an architect in Annapolis with expertise in waterfront properties. The reason people want to live on the water is because of the natural beauty. But living with natural beauty means living with regulations.

In addition to the Chesapeake Bay, there are 48 major rivers, 100 smaller rivers, and thousands of tiny streams and creeks in this region. Within this watershed, there are nearly 3,000 different species of plants and animals, including the endangered bald eagle, the Delmarva fox squirrel, and the tiger beetle, as well as colonial tidal nesting birds like herons, egrets, and terns.

Since 1984, waterfront property in and around the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland has been protected by the Critical Area Commission, which oversees land use programs and ensures consistency between local and state governments. One statewide regulation of which every potential buyer should be aware is that no structure can be built within 100 feet of tidal waters or adjacent wetlands, known as “critical areas,” or within 25 feet of non-tidal wetlands, such as marshes and swamps. Additional setbacks may also come into play depending on slopes and erodable soils, notes Steve McHale, whose company, McHale Landscape Design Inc., creates buffer management plans that include native plants and aim to prevent land erosion.

There are many other local zoning, environmental, and health regulations governing waterfront, so it’s wise to educate yourself prior to buying a property. “There’s always a surprise somewhere, so talk to the county first,” says McHale. “It’s amazing. People will spend lots of time researching which car to buy, but don’t take the time to research when it comes to property,” says Mary Owens of the Critical Area Commission. To save time, headaches, and lots of money, here are a few things to consider:

Building on the Waterfront
Building a new waterfront house or adding square footage to a smaller existing house is doable, but septic capacity, not the homeowner, will determine just how large the house will be. “Finding septic reserve areas with good percolation (ability of the soil to absorb liquid) can be tricky, especially when there are property line setbacks, critical area setbacks, and setbacks from the well and structure,” cautions Debra Dills, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Eastern Shore Properties.

So if you want to expand that three-bedroom, 1940s waterman’s cottage to a five-bedroom home for your family, you’ll need land that percolates to accommodate a larger septic tank. In many jurisdictions, the county health department will only test soil for percolation during the wettest time of year; waiting for this test can add months to your project. And if land doesn’t perc, you’ll be limited on the size of the addition you can build. “I know of someone with a 750-foot cottage whose land failed to perc,” says Cherry. “Although the house is on beautiful waterfront property, they haven’t been able to sell it, since the cottage only has two bedrooms [and can’t be expanded].”

Another consideration is the amount of impervious surface you plan to add. Pools, driveways, decks, sheds, and porches (even gazebos) are all considered impervious surfaces. Only a certain percentage of the property can be covered with impervious surfaces, since they impede natural water filtration. Some properties can be developed more than others, depending on the area’s zoning class, says McHale.

“Swimming pools are at the top of everyone’s wish list,” says Chuck Mangold, Jr. of Benson & Mangold, a real estate firm that handles waterfront property on the Eastern Shore. “Most people want to put pools between the house and the water, but you can’t do that within the 100-foot buffer.”

All jurisdictions grant variances to accommodate modern needs. However, be warned: “Variances are given for hardship, and it’s hard to convince anyone that living without a swimming pool or a four-car garage is a hardship,” explains Cherry.

Water and Land
“Most people buy waterfront property for the tranquility. They aren’t avid boaters,” Mangold says. However, those that are should first ask about water depth. “Also ask if there are any controlling depth issues, because you may have six feet of water off the pier but only three feet out of the cove. If you want to be able to sail out of the cove, you’ll need more depth.”

If you find a great piece of property, but trees are blocking the view, understand that those trees will be staying. “You can remove dead or dangerous trees, but you’ll need authorization and maybe a reforestation plan,” explains Owens.

Buyers also sometimes overlook erosion protection. Though it may be the least sexy factor to consider, it is among the most important. Without proper protection, the waterfront you see today may be gone tomorrow. “We had one listing that lost 40 feet of land in one horrific storm, because they had not installed riprap,” says Dills. Natural erosion protection using native grasses such as those suggested by McHale is preferred by the Critical Area Commission and local environmental groups, but riprap may be warranted on highly vulnerable properties. Riprap offers additional protection against erosion, but it doesn’t come cheap. “It can run as much as a couple hundred dollars per foot,” notes Mangold.

These are just a few of the many issues that arise when buying on the waterfront. Many are site specific and depend on where the property is located. Each county and city has its own governing regulations and processes. The bottom line? Before you buy waterfront property, know there are special regulations. Educate yourself, and enlist people who can help navigate the regulatory maze.

“Work with a local [real estate] agent who knows local regulations,” suggests Mangold. “Also, add a contingency to your contract that provides for a study period of a week or two. Take that time to do your due diligence. Hire a local architect and a soil consultant to give you an idea of what you’re able to do [on the property] before you commit.” McHale also recommends bringing in a civil engineer or a company that has experience with critical area properties.

No doubt about it. Buying on the waterfront is not like buying any other piece of property. Then again, living on the waterfront is unlike living any place else. .”

Andrea Poe is a regular contributor to ChesapeakeHome.

Benson & , 877-243-7378 (Oxford), 877-745-0415 (St. Michaels),
or 877-770-9258 (Easton)
Catherine Purple Cherry Architects: or 410-990-1700
Coldwell Banker Eastern Shore or 410-822-9000
Critical Area Commission: or 410-260-3460
Ilex Construction & or 410-243-6796
McHale Landscape Design, Inc.: or 410-798-7305

In addition to statewide requirements, there are also county and town regulations for waterfront property. For further information, contact: Critical Area Commission: contacts.html or 410-260-3460 Maryland Department of the Environment