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Getting permit to repair shoreline is first step in building in flood zone

(Dan Wittenberg)

Dan Wittenberg bought about 13 acres of land in the Potomac River flood zone in St. Mary’s County because of his love of sailing and windsurfing. Eight years ago, with no special real estate or construction skills, Wittenberg built an 800-square-foot cottage there (the maximum permissible on that 566,000 square foot lot). Now he’s chronicling his attempt to build something special that will pass regulators’ muster on a just-purchased one-third of an acre waterfront parcel next door. This is his sixth installment.

I finally have that first permit in hand. It’s the permission to remove the existing cement and steel debris from my waterfront and replace it with a planted rock and dirt berm called a “reverse living shoreline.”

After four months, the Maryland Department of the Environment (Tidal Wetlands Division) ultimately did give its blessing for this necessary beach clean-up as did the Maryland Critical Area Commission (Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays) and the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use And Growth Management (the state’s eager and overlapping co-regulator).

It required the submission of an impressively titled “Joint Federal/State Application For The Alteration Of Any Floodplain, Waterway, Tidal Or Non-Tidal Wetland in Maryland” along with associated drawings, aerial photographs, maps and cross-sectional views (illustrating high-to-low marsh ratios, proposed slope angles, mean high water lines and “maximum channelward extent of groins”). Naturally, a mandatory “Buffer Management Plan” and “Buffer Notification Form” had to accompany the already fat packet.

It all seems like a lot of overkill for what really will amount to a few days work hauling away some manmade junk from a 90-foot sliver of beach and then doing a bit of landscaping there. But at least this very low hurdle has been cleared. By the next installment, I hope to be able to run an “after” photograph showing you patient readers that real progress (rather than just words) is being made.

The job itself will cost a total of about $7,500 — which includes that whole lengthy permitting process. I hired a local firm to do the actual work. As a matter of fact, my contractor lives on a farm less than a quarter mile down the road (where he keeps some of the heavy equipment needed for this job) and is not only a principal in this marine construction business but also a partner in an unrelated oyster-raising enterprise with the fellow who I bought the lot from.

In a place like St. Mary’s County, employing local labor, if possible, is absolutely the best way to go. Not only are you supporting the local economy and establishing good relationships with your  interconnected neighbors, but you’re also piggybacking on their familiarity with both the vagaries of the environment and the county regulators.

The next paperwork barrier, the building permit (even without septic), will likely be substantially higher than this one. Hopefully, however, its progress should be quicker since its jurisdiction may be St. Mary’s County alone. Thanks to reader input, I’ve got a pretty good general idea of what I want to build now so I’ll be filing that application fairly soon — and telling you all about it. Frankly, though, the weather has been so perfect lately that it’s hard to think much about even a pet construction project like this one.

It’s just too easy to get lost in the moment while eagles and ospreys chase each other through balmy seasonal winds in blue skies above your mast. Or, for that matter, even while napping in a hammock surrounded by the delicate shades of light green that all the plants only wear during early spring. Such wonderful distractions remind me why I’m so eager to build a structure worthy of those simple “time-warps” on this very pleasant spot.

Apparently, I’m not the only one so smitten. When I arrived there last weekend, I found remnants of a large bonfire as well as cast-off surf-casting gear on my beach. The neighbors informed me that the guy who cuts my grass and his girlfriend decided that the just mown lot was an absolutely magical spot to park their RV for two sublime days of camping and rock-fishing.

Some may view this scenario as one of the drawbacks of employing local labor who are so familiar with the local environment that they dispense with the nicety of an absentee landlord’s permission. To me, it seems something of a compliment that the young couple could recognize the privacy and beauty of this isolated little beach. After all, there’s an awful lot of available coastline in southern Maryland for a couple of kids with a motor home to choose from.

Read Dan Wittenberg’s previous posts:

To get a permit for Potomac project, you must first understand the process

Creating a living shoreline is key to Potomac project

Passing muster on septic is first step in winning approval for flood zone project

Pontoon house? Stilt house? Geodesic dome? ISO ideas to develop flood zone.

The quest to build something very cool in a very hazardous area




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