(Dan Wittenberg)

Dan Wittenberg bought about 13 acres of land in the Potomac River flood zone 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 fourth installment.

Several reader comments to my last column stressed the need for riverside plantings in order to protect the lot’s gradually eroding shoreline. That advice is particularly incisive and is, indeed, the first, er, “concrete” step that I will be taking.

As a matter of fact, my lot’s 90 feet of beachfront is all broken slabs of two-foot thick, reinforced concrete. Short of a passenger ship terminal, I can’t imagine exactly what kind of infrastructure its original owner was trying to build there. But whatever it was, and despite its formidable bulk, the patient Potomac tidally and tidily undermined the ground beneath it and the colossus collapsed. I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere but right now it’s just an eyesore that resembles the kind of amphibious battlements the troops had to storm on D-Day. Like the derelict cottage, it,  too, has to go.

Its removal and replacement is the first permit that I’m applying for. Since it looks to me like a nice, sandy beach is trying to accrete there, I want to swap all those jagged tons of fallen cement and rebar for something called a “living shoreline.” That’s the politically correct term in Maryland for a type of breakwater designed to prevent the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries from drowning their surrounding banks and hinterlands.

Of course, since those waters are rising at the steady rate of 4 millimeters per year, it’s ultimately a Sisyphean task but even so it’s still an essential one in the shorter term. Despite the grandiose title, a “living shoreline” is basically just a sill of dense rock backing onto a landscaped slope at the water’s edge; the rocks absorb wave energy and the plantings help keep the soil from washing away.

Semantics are a very important part of this particular permitting process (which is doubly and jointly administered by the State of Maryland Department of the Environment and St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management). The permit for a “living shoreline” is free of charge but an application calling such a barrier a stone revetment (even though it will be armored with stones) costs $750. If you anti-semantically describe it as a “seawall” (though technically it could be called that, too) you likely won’t receive a permit at all. In St. Mary’s County, a “seawall” is the common usage for the now thoroughly discredited wooden bulkheads that typically lined the residential county shores before Hurricane Isabel.

Not only is “living shoreline” a magical bureaucratic incantation for the regulators but it’s also what I happen to want on my lot. A solid wall of riprap or lumber would severely limit recreational access to the water and wouldn’t look nearly as nice as a gently sloping beach that finds its own angle in relation to the water (which, as a general rule, is the best defense against erosion anyhow). Besides that, the native beach grass and vegetation planted to stabilize a “living shoreline” is aesthetic, maintenance-free, and far cheaper than importing that many more truckloads of boulders. Of course, the folks with houses too close to the water’s edge don’t have the luxury of being quite as “zen-nishly” accommodating to the eroding elements in their back yards. That’s why, despite overwhelming evidence and common sense, shoreline protection can be a very controversial topic.

But even when one’s own interests and plans dovetail perfectly with the county’s and state’s, the shoreline permitting process can still be a tedious one. The shoreline regulators themselves apologize in advance for its length and advise all applicants to allow for at least two to three months of lead time. They also candidly admit that “we’re loads of fun to deal with.” That’s because it’s also their thankless task to make sure that absolutely nothing can touch the water without two jurisdictions’ worth of prior written approvals — even for the removal of man-made hazards that everyone agrees shouldn’t be there.

Before an excavator can rumble onto a waterfront lot in order to remove any debris from a failed seawall (such as mine), a comprehensive permit for that shoreline’s rehabilitation must already be in hand. If not, “stop work orders” and fines will ensue with the inevitability of the tide itself. Even the unavoidable damage to the lot’s existing vegetation (native or not) caused by an excavator’s treads is subject to a mandated ecological penance of “remediation plantings” according to a very specific disturbance to lot size formula.

All of which makes me wonder whether I should have added a request for a dock onto my living shoreline permit application. Sure it would have added $750 to the permit fee (if you want a dock that’s the permit price regardless of what you may call it — and the county assumes that everyone with any waterfront whatsoever does want one) but it might save a bit of hassle down the road.

While I’m waiting for that permit to make its glacial progress through the system (and we’re talking about those old fashioned, pre- global warming glaciers here), it’ll give me plenty of time to decide on what sort of structure to build there. At the moment, I’m enthralled with the concept of a land-based but foundation-less cabin that is built with enough flotation in and below its floor joists so that it can rise up, like a floating dock, on fixed posts and float up over any future tidal surge.

It’s sort of a hybrid of reader suggestions and it also happens to be existing technology that is currently in use in Holland, Louisiana and probably some other below-sea- level corners of this planet as well. I’m very anxious to hear if anyone out there has had any real-life experience with it.

As always, I look forward to your input.

Read Dan Wittenberg’s previous posts:

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