Municipal Land Use Violations: Landowners Can Unknowingly be Exposed to Enforcement Liability

© David Hill

© David Hill

"It's my property, I can do what I want" is a common statement made by some landowners. With the increase in land use regulation and zoning, it has increasingly become a falsehood.  Land use regulations greatly impact how real property is used and can often prohibit seemingly harmless actions.  For example, some Portland landowners are facing enforcement actions for renting out their property on Airbnb.com.  

If you own property with shore frontage, the prime example of landowners being exposed to expensive liability is the all too common tree cutting in shoreland zone violation.  While this prohibition has it's environmental justifications, unknowing landowners can be treated the same as an intentional violator.  The penalties that can come with these kinds of violations can be shocking, especially to Maine camp owners that are having enough trouble keeping up with rising property taxes.  

All of this can be exacerbated by the fact that each town has its own set of rules and it's own way of handling enforcement of its land use regulations. A landowner in one town can end up with a drastically different result than than a landowner in the next town over.  

The questions becomes, how does one know when they are exposing themselves to enforcement liability?  Many towns will have their zoning regulations available on their websites.  However, zoning ordinances are too often far from clear and I would recommend speaking to someone who is qualified to go over an ordinance with you.  Additionally, it may be an issue where you can just call the local Code Enforcement Officer (CEO) to discuss what is proper on your property. This can have its pitfalls, because you could still be exposed to liability in some cases if the CEO gave you bad advice. 

This means it increasingly important to know your town's land use regulations or talk to someone who does before beginning to use your property in new way.