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Is Shoreland Zoning Working?

posted Jan 5, 2016, 5:17 AM by Joseph Bickard

December 28, 2015 - Sebago-Understanding and complying with Maine’s shoreland zoning laws is one of the best ways waterfront landowners can keep their lake clean and protect their investment. These laws were crafted based on scientific studies and carefully worded to be applicable to the both natural and developed lots. To govern this wide variety of conditions and still allow for sensible development, the rules evolved to be both flexible and detailed. However, these qualities combined with the many different uses around the water have made the laws complex. And unfortunately, this complexity sometimes results in misunderstanding, misinterpretation and abuse of the regulations.

Because of these problems, groups like the Maine Lake Society (formerly the Congress of Lake Associations) and LEA have continued to push for better regulations and more clarity regarding the existing laws. This past summer, Representative Gary Hilliard of Belgrade put forward a bill at the request of the Maine Lake Society, with input from LEA to improve provisions of shoreland zoning and establish a stakeholder group to study the effectiveness of the rules. While the content of the bill is being carried over to the next session, the legislature did direct a working group to evaluate compliance and enforcement of shoreland zoning regulations and the Maine Municipal Association agreed to host the group.

The working group was formed in the summer of 2015 and is made up of lake groups, town employees, municipally elected officials, and representatives from real estate and development, general contractors, municipal planning, Maine Audubon, and regional conservation districts. The study group also requested input and participation from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s shoreland zoning unit and the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), however both these requests were declined. The shoreland zoning unit provides guidance and support to municipalities on these regulations and the DECD provides training and certification for local code enforcement officers in shoreland zoning.

To achieve the goal of evaluating compliance and enforcement of shoreland zoning regulations, the working group sent out two statewide surveys. The first survey was to code enforcement officers who are primarily responsible for administering and enforcing shoreland zoning regulations in most towns. The questionnaire was sent out to 274 code officers throughout the state and 80 responses were received. The survey covered everything from general support for shoreland zoning laws to problems that are consistently found when enforcing the regulations.

The first survey indicated that the biggest compliance challenge was in the tree and vegetative cutting rules. The results also showed that code officers felt that landowner education, increased inspections and more training would all result in a reduction of shoreland zoning violations. Overwhelmingly, code officers also felt that the state’s shoreland zoning personnel were extremely helpful although very understaffed.

The second survey went out to members of active lake associations throughout the state and was returned by 65 people. The results of this survey revealed that tree cutting was the most frequently reported violation of lake associations. The vast majority of respondents also felt that they had only a partial understanding of tree and vegetative cutting standards and nearly ¾ felt that shoreland zoning training for lake associations would be beneficial.

After receiving, reviewing and analyzing the results, the working group will send a report back to the legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. To address concerns over tree and vegetative cutting, the work group is recommending that landowners notify the town before cutting in areas directly adjacent to the water (within 100 feet of lakes, ponds, rivers, and wetlands and 75 feet of streams.) While detailed cutting regulations apply to this area now, the state shoreland zoning guidelines do not currently require a permit or notification for cutting in this sensitive area. This relatively simple addition to the standards will require people to contact the town code enforcement officer and become aware of the specific rules before cutting. Another recommended change is to have “before” and “after” photos submitted for permitted work within the shoreland zone. This system is already in place and working for the state’s “permit-by-rule” program that applies within 75 feet of the water. The working group believes this requirement will increase compliance with the existing regulations because landowners will be more likely to adhere to the rules if documentation of permitted work must be provided to the town. While not synonymous with site visits, this addition will give code officers another tool to better evaluate work in the shoreland zone with only minimal impact on staff time.

Finally, the working group is also looking into avenues for increased training opportunities for both code officers and landowners. This could be done through a variety of methods and one concept discussed was having qualified groups jointly lead trainings on specific issues that are consistent with state training requirements for code officers. Larger lake groups with paid staff were also identified as possible training source for lake associations.

While changes to shoreland zoning are often slow moving, LEA is optimistic that the legislature can act on these recommendations in their next session.

Colin Holme, LEA Lake News, Winter 2016