Modifying your shoreline property? Check local regulations first – Part 1

Checking local zoning regulations is the first step for shoreline property owners considering major landscaping projects. The first part of this series outlines shoreline zoning ordinance goals and common provisions.

Spring is the time of year when shoreline property owners may think about their landscape plans, whether it is small maintenance tasks or major re-landscaping projects. When considering changes, it is important to review community shoreline buffer restrictions. Those regulations are most often part of a township, city, village or county zoning ordinance. Many Michigan communities with lakes or streams within their jurisdictions have these provisions and apply to new construction, additions and major landscape changes. A zoning permit may be required before major landscape projects can be started. County, state or federal regulations and permit requirements may also apply.

The best way to find out if a community has shoreline development restrictions is to contact the unit of government that administers zoning. In communities that are not zoned, the county building or planning department is a good starting point. Landscape contractors may or may not be familiar with local regulations.

The goals of local shoreline buffer regulations are to protect water quality and preserve critical shoreline habitat. Poorly designed shoreline landscapes with lawns to the shore can harm lakes and streams. Rainwater can more easily carry nutrients into the water that cause excessive weed and algae. Shallow-rooted plants may cause shorelines to erode, and ultimately wildlife habitats are destroyed. Even if your community does not require shoreline buffering you can still participate and feel good about doing your part for your neighborhood environment.

While shoreline buffer regulations can differ quite a bit from community to community, there are at least three elements that are consistent among all regulations:

Undisturbed buffer areas

These provisions require that undisturbed, natural vegetation be maintained a certain distance from the shoreline. Lawns are not usually considered natural vegetation, although sometimes un-mowed grass is allowed. There’s quite a lot of variability between ordinances, with the buffer width being anywhere between 10 to 100 feet or more. A few communities have variable buffer width requirements depending on steepness and other factors. These regulations may permit some modification within the buffer areas to allow for access, views or beaches.


This common type of regulation requires that buildings and accessory structures are constructed no closer than a defined distance from the shoreline. A structure as simple as a garden shed could be prohibited within the setback area. There could also be greater distance setbacks for nutrient sources such as septic drain fields.

Impervious surface maximums

Impervious surfaces, such as roofs, driveways, walkways and patios do not allow storm water to seep into the ground, and instead enable water to flow into a lake or stream, carrying with it nutrients and chemicals. Ordinances address this issue by limiting the percent of a parcel that can be impervious, typically 20 –30 percent. Impervious surface requirements are sometimes an issue with major re-landscaping projects that include “hardscape,” such as walkways and patios. Porous paving materials are commonly available that can be used to complying with impervious surface limitations.

Part two of this series covers additional shoreline ordinance provisions and sources of information.

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