Shoreland construction rules causing some confusion

The new provisions of the state’s Comprehensive Shoreland Protection Act officially went into effect on July 1, with requirements that further shape the Granite State’s body of law governing the extent of construction work that can be done on properties within 250 feet of rivers, lakes and the ocean.

The new regulations require a state permit for most new construction, excavation or filling activities within 250 feet of a shore. Permits cost a minimum of $100, plus 10 cents per square foot of area affected by construction. There is a maximum fee of $3,750 for projects covering areas of more than 25,000 square feet.

Jay Aube, a Department of Environmental Services shoreland protection specialist, said his agency has been processing a “fair” amount of new permit requests and fielding calls from people confused about the new rules.

Still, according to Aube, “I think it’s been a relatively seamless transition so far, and we are well-equipped to handle the applications,” he said.

Others have described the change as rockier, including Paul Goodwin, owner of Watermark Marine Construction in Gilford. He heads the recently formed New Hampshire Shorefront Association.

“There is definitely still a lot of confusion, and people are fired up about it,” Goodwin said.

His firm acts as an agent in helping property owners obtain permits for all types of shorefront projects, and his phone has been ringing off the hook from those looking for guidance, he said.

“We have a half-dozen [in the process of getting permits] and another 20 or 30 that really need to get done,” he said.

He added that it will take time for him to judge the new regulations, but at first glance, the process appears to be more involved, even for simple projects, which now require expert advice.

“It’s very complicated, and you pretty much need a survey,” Goodwin said.

More flexibility

From the state’s perspective, false information likely is causing much of the confusion.

“There is a tremendous amount of erroneous information released from multiple sources,” Aube said.

Aube said the required permit is among the biggest changes in the law, though other new rules seek to eliminate former standards that he said could be viewed as “subjective.”

He said the new law is more about being more “definable,” including for property owners, who he said could be seen as having more flexibility now.

The new law sets up restrictions in a tiered system starting at a 250-foot “reference line” that defines the land designated as “protected shoreland.” The regulations become more restrictive as a builder approaches the 150-foot mark, defined as the “natural woodland buffer,” and finally, the 50-foot “waterfront buffer” that marks the primary building setback for any structure.

Under the act, only 20 percent of the area within 250 feet of shore may be impervious surface, though this may be increased to 30 percent if an applicant submits a stormwater plan and maintains a certain amount of tree coverage within 50 feet of shore — a standard that is based on a 50-by-50-foot “grid system” and points system.

The law prohibits the establishment of salt storage yards, auto junk yards and solid or hazardous waste facilities within 250 feet of shore and requires new lots — including those in excess of five acres — to be subject to subdivision approval by DES.

The act also requires maintaining more vegetation between the 150-foot “natural woodland buffer” and the 50-foot waterfront buffer, with lots of more than one-half acre to have at least 50 percent of the area in unaltered state. Lots smaller than one-half acre must maintain 25 percent of the vegetation unaltered.

In addition, all primary structures must be set back at least 50 feet from shore.

DES has said towns may maintain or enact their own setbacks, but only if they are greater than state’s 50-foot standard. Structures allowed within 50 feet of shore include “accessory structures” like patios and retaining walls, but not decks, boathouses or structures exceeding 150 square feet and 12 feet in height, Aube said.

A property owner can erect a shed within the wetlands buffer, but it would require a permit.

Aube said many people have been misinformed that the reconstruction of existing structures requires a permit.

It does not unless a new foundation is being poured or if the plans call for a bigger building or structure requiring a septic system with increased load-bearing capacity, he said.

Individuals who already have lawns or open spaces in the wetlands buffer are “grandfathered.”

He said no natural ground cover shall be removed within 50 feet of shore except for a footpath to the water that does not exceed six feet in width, concentrate stormwater or contribute to erosion.

Pesticide or herbicide applications must be done by a licensed applicator. Low-phosphorus, slow-release nitrogen fertilizer may be used, though none is allowed within 25 feet of shore, Aube said.