Building on the Lake

There are many potential issues for building on a lake.  Most people understand that there are setback rules for lot lines, roads and lakes.  As to lakes, the distances vary depending on the lake classification.  Even when you know your classification, the setback is not from the water’s edge.  Shorelines move over time so the local zoning authority should have an ordinary high water mark elevation set for your lake that your surveyor could mark for you.  That is the line to measure your setback from.  One more exception is if you have a bluff or a wetland near the shoreline.  Again, these are legal definitions that a surveyor should confirm but these issues may make your setback even farther back.

To make things more complicated, you may be remodeling an existing cabin.  Many older cabins are legal nonconformities.  That means that they were legal when constructed (often simply because there were no rules when constructed) but now do not meet modern zoning laws.  You can buy and sell such cabins but you cannot expand a nonconforming structure without zoning approval.  Your property could be nonconforming for many reasons.  Your cabin could be too close to the lake or maybe there are too many structures on your property.  Your lot could simply be too small or not have enough width.  Most jurisdictions now limit the amount of impervious coverage so you could simply have to many improvements that would limit how much new home, patio or driveway you could build.  Hopefully this list of potential issues puts you on notice to be careful before buying a lot if you want to remodel and/or simply knowing the rules before starting any construction project.

To work with all these preexisting issues, you may need a variance.  A variance allows for an exception to all these rules so that you can build or remodel.  The best advice on getting variances is to work with the zoning authority before you start construction.  You will likely need a good surveyor and often an experienced architect or builder that can work with zoning staff to find a workable solution.  If you are buying a lake lot, it’s always best to make the purchase contingent on getting the zoning approvals you need before you complete the purchase.

A new development is that FEMA just reset floodplain maps.  Many shorelines are now considered floodplains that will require flood insurance if you have a mortgage and may require your foundation being above a certain elevation.  Again a survey may be needed to establish whether or not you have an issue.  The burden is on you to prove you are not in the floodplain.  If there already has been a survey, it’s likely that won’t resolve the issue as most surveys don’t show elevation.  You need to have the surveyor mark the elevation within your building envelope to really confirm what you have to work with.

Please send any request for topic suggestions to  Although we cannot give you legal advice through the column, we can provide some general information that may be helpful for you to know.  Our purpose is to educate and we hope that you can take something new away from this column each time you read it.