steve salsbury using surveying equipment

Upta Camp, Upta Code: What You Need To Know When Renovating or Adding On To Your Camp or Cottage

If you’ve been spending time at camp enjoying the sunny days of summer, chances are you’ve also started a running list of improvements, renovations, or additions you want to make before the snow falls or as soon as it melts next year. 

If your camp or cottage was built more than a few years ago, it may not be as easy as you’d think. 

Why? You may have to deal with getting up to code. 

What is a non-conforming structure?

In Maine especially, many camps and cottages are older and were constructed prior to the existing land use codes and ordinances being adopted by the local municipality they reside in. 

Some common examples include:

  • setback lines
  • structure heights
  • septic disposal requirements 
  • size of maximum allowed clearings 

Really, it includes any portions of the existing structure that does not comply with the new regulations but was in lawful existence at the time the code or ordinance was adopted. 

In these situations, the structure or existing lot is referred to as a non-conforming structure or a non-conforming lot of record and is grandfathered from having to meet the new, more restrictive provisions in the code or land use ordinance. 

Municipalities do this to avoid a constitutional taking without compensation. The use or structure is allowed to be maintained in its current state as long as no major changes are made. 

Does my camp fall into this category?

A common example we see here in Maine is a camp that is very close to the edge of a lake or beach. Most towns and cities now require 75 or 100-foot setbacks from the edge of the waterbody to the nearest part of the structure in order to build a new camp. The existing camp that is at or very close to the edge of the waterbody is grandfathered and can remain for the useful life of the structure.  

Does this mean I can’t put an addition onto my camp or cottage if it is too close to the lake or waterbody? 

No, you are fine to build an addition provided that the addition is no closer to the waterbody and no closer to the property line if the property line setback does not comply with the current ordinance. There are limitations, and those limitations depend on the town in which the property is located. 

Can I build a new basement under my camp or cottage? 

Yes, provided that the floor level of the structure is not raised by more than three feet, the placement of a basement under a structure in most cases is not considered an expansion and is allowed. This also depends on the town you are in and the area of the town you are in. 

Do these rules apply if I want to rent out my camp or cottage?

Zoning does not usually preclude rentals, but as long as the local municipality does not regulate short term rentals you can continue to rent your space. However, think about tax implications, insurance, liability and life safety features of the structure prior to jumping into the rental business. Are there hazards to small children? Are there smoke, carbon monoxide, and lp gas detectors and do they work? What happens if the person you hire to clean the camp gets hurt while cleaning? If there is an emergency, is there a working telephone with the address on it? Are all the handrails on the stairs suitable and code compliant? Are any decks properly surrounded by rails and balusters at the proper height? 

How do I get started?

Many towns place their land use ordinances on their municipal website. The language contained in a land-use ordinance can be quite confusing. The municipal code enforcement officer is also an excellent resource and many time can assist you with permitting questions but can not help you with determining setback lines or boundary lines. 

Herrick & Salsbury, Inc. can always help you assess your building plans to see if your plans are compliant with the town’s land use ordinances.