Use Caution When Clearing Vegetation in a Shoreland Zone

Now that spring is here, it is time to start preparing your family camp for summer. This may lead you to get the urge to clear out some vegetation around your property.  Maybe you have some trees that you think may be dying or safety hazards and you believe it’s about time to bring them down. This is not something you should do without being sure whether you need a permit. In many cases, even dead and dying trees need to be replanted and a Code Enforcement Officer should be consulted. Further, unpermitted cutting of vegetation on waterfront property can lead to civil penalties and expensive replanting projects. 

Mandatory Shoreland Zoning was enacted by the Maine legislature in 1971 with the goal of protecting Maine’s extensive water resources.  Maintaining vegetation along bodies of water is important for water quality because it helps minimize runoff into the water.  Today, Shoreland Zoning greatly limits how waterfront property may be developed and, also, limits the amount of clearing of plant life in the zone. 

Prior to engaging in any project, you need to figure out if your property is located in the Shoreland Zone. Maine’s Mandatory Shoreland Zoning Act defines shoreland areas as “areas within 250 feet of the normal high-water line of any great pond, river or saltwater body, within 250 feet of the upland edge of a coastal wetland, within 250 feet of the upland edge of a freshwater wetland…, or within 75 feet of the high-water line of a stream.”   38 M.R.S.A. § 435 Further, after determining your property is in a Shoreland Zone, you will need to know if your property is within a Resource Protection Zone which would result in much more stringent limitations being applied.  For example, Resource Protection zoning prohibits all cutting within 75 feet of the body of water.  Alternatively, if your property is in just the Shoreland Zone, cutting will just be limited but not prohibited. You will need to consult your town’s zoning map to make this determination. 

Clearing of vegetation in a Shoreland Zone may seem harmless enough to many landowners. However, some examples from local news stories about the legal consequences of shoreland tree cutting demonstrate why landowners should tread carefully.  In 2016, Kennebunk imposed only a $500 penalty on a land trust for cutting invasive bushes in the Shoreland Zone. However, this wasn’t the only cost involved. The consent agreement also included $10,554 for remediation and additional money for legal and surveyor fees. Additionally, in a more extreme case, a landowner paid the Town of Naples a $65,000 penalty to as part of a settlement for tree clearing on Long Lake.

As the above examples show, extensive clearing without a permit can lead to heavy monetary penalties and costly replanting. Not only do landowners end up without the desired open space, they also can have the privilege of paying the town thousands of dollars.  Further, if that isn’t enough, Maine statute provides that violators also are liable for the Town’s attorney’s fees.  See 30-A M.R.S.A. § 4452

If you plan on doing work in a Shoreland Zone, consult with an attorney, who can help point out potential problems. Even an hour of attorney time can give you enough information to prevent you from receiving an enforcement letter from a town official.