Know the Law: Lake Front Property Enhancements

Photo of Gregory H. Smith
Gregory H. Smith
Director & Chair, Administrative Law Department and Managing Director of State Capital Office
Published: Union Leader
July 26, 2010

Q:  We have owned lake front property right on the water for many years and would like to expand the old house, upgrade the permanent docks and stone wall along the shore, and do some landscaping to enhance the grounds and our view of the water.  The Town approves of our plans.  Can we move forward?

A:  If your house was built at the water’s edge before 1994 it is a grandfathered non-conforming use, but because it is within the 50-foot shoreland setback requirement, you cannot expand its footprint, nor can you upgrade permanent docks or the stone wall along the shore without obtaining the necessary State approvals.  To make the changes you propose it will be necessary to comply with both the State Shoreland Protection Act, (“SPA”), and the Wetlands Law.

The SPA regulates shoreland property within 250 feet of the water’s edge and prohibits the construction of primary residences or the expansion of existing residences within the 50-foot Waterfront Buffer.  The percentage of a lot covered by impervious surfaces is strictly regulated.  Impervious surfaces include the roofs of all structures, pavement, gravel and dirt roads as well as patios, decks and the like.  Natural vegetation may not be removed within the 50-foot Waterfront Buffer except to provide for a six-foot wide path to the water.   Tree removal is restricted under the SPA, but an allowance is made for the removal of tree limbs in order to maintain a view.

It is equally important to understand the reach of the State, federal and local wetlands laws each of which apply in all cases.  In general, the installation, repair or expansion of seasonal or permanent docks, breakwaters, walkways, stairs or any other structure on the bank or in the water may require State approval.  An existing wall along the shore may be replaced in kind and in precisely the same location based upon a properly prepared permit by notification to the Department of Environmental Services.

Finally, it is highly recommended that you document, including photographs, the existing conditions on your property before you make any alterations.  New Hampshire’s shoreline protection laws can be unexpectedly complicated and frequently trap the unwary.  Violations, even though they are inadvertent, of these requirements can bring protracted delays, transaction costs, and fines and penalties in the thousands of dollars.  Anyone contemplating these kinds of property improvements should obtain sound advice before proceeding to undertake any field work.