Docks and the law

Maine has no shortage of lakes and ponds—so many, in fact, that there are several thousand that do not even have a name. Naturally, swimming, boating, and kayaking/canoeing are popular activities, especially at the lakefront camp. Those water-dependent activities rely on docks and other improvements. But whether a property owner may construct a dock on a lake depends upon when, where, and how. This article is a brief overview of the complex legal issues involved.

Docks are complicated because there are a number of potential laws or regulations that apply (and might conflict). The laws may be enforced by many different governmental agencies at the local, state, and federal level.

Land use is primarily regulated by local cities and towns. Each local municipality has a unique set of laws or ordinances. Some municipalities do not regulate docks at all, while others require property owners to apply for a use permit or go through other review processes.

In part because of natural resource and environmental concerns, a number of state agencies (and federal agencies) also regulate water bodies, including lakes and ponds. Depending on the location and depth of the lake, state agencies, including the Bureau of Parks and Lands and the Department of Wildlife and Inland Fisheries, may have jurisdiction. If you seek to construct a dock that could affect others’ public trust rights, you may be required to obtain a lease from the state.

If your neighbor on the lake is seeking approval from local or state government for a dock, you are likely entitled to notice and an opportunity to give input, either in the form of comments or in a public hearing. Notices go to “abutters”—property owners close to a given proposal that could be affected.

Despite the laws and government oversight, there are surely thousands of docking structures that have existed for decades or more without any regulation at all. Many of these would be considered “pre-existing non-conforming uses” (commonly known as grandfathering). This makes an exception for structures and improvements that were made before the law existed. I would not be surprised to learn that these are quite common, particularly in the wild, remote parts of Maine.

In sum, docks are a very useful improvement, but can raise very complicated legal issues. If you wish to construct a dock, or learn that your neighbor intends to do so, the matter will depend on the town, the lake, and the specifics of the planned construction.

This article is for informational and educational purposes, and is not intended to be legal advice. You should consult legal counsel to assess the legal issues specific to your case. Libby, O’Brien, Kingsley & Champion has extensive experience in land-use matters, including dock approval and regulation.