A family camp in West Bethel was damaged by a falling tree last winter. Photo by Evan Mills

In the 20 years or so I’ve been writing a gardening column, I’ve written about shoreland zoning many times, touching on which plants not to remove and which to add. I think I also wrote about the topic as a general assignment reporter for the Lewiston Sun Journal way back in the early 1970s when the shorefront regulations became law.

This year, though, I dealt with the laws on a personal level.

Members of my family – I am not on the deed – own a camp on the West Branch of the Pleasant River in Mason Township. I usually describe Mason as a suburb of West Bethel; the camp is a 20-minute walk from the White Mountain National Forest boundary.

Last winter, during a windstorm with temperatures well below zero, the top of a huge pine tree fell on the camp’s porch, breaking all the windows and destroying the roof and the floor. A complete rebuild was in order – and over several weekends this past summer, friends and family did just that.

After the work was done, someone suggested we remove some still-standing trees to prevent future disastrous blowdowns. Because I have more contacts in Maine’s landscape community than the owners do, the task fell to me. I consulted with local neighbors and landscape professionals, then contacted Sheldon Rice, an arborist in Waterford. He met us at camp, confirmed the work should be done, and said he could do it – once we got permission from the state.

In my eagerness to get the job done, I had completely blocked out of my mind what I know about shoreland zoning. Such zoning was enacted to prevent fertilizer, weed-controlling poisons, silt and even oil and gasoline from automobiles from getting into – and polluting – Maine rivers, lakes and streams. In addition to slowing down run-off, a heavily planted shorefront will stabilize the land and help prevent erosion during heavy rainfall and flooding, as we experienced in December.


According to family stories, my father-in-law, a professional building contractor, built the camp for his father-in-law (my wife Nancy’s grandfather) and some of his friends shortly after World War II. The camp had a name and a sign: “Pokerhunters.” Poker came first, family legend says, because the men valued it first.

The entire camp property is closer than 75 feet from the riverfront. Today, you can’t build anything within 75 feet of any body of water. But existing structures are grandfathered under the law, meaning our cabin can stay. After my father-in-law inherited or bought out the other owners (I’m not sure which), he planted the white pine trees that now stand (or have fallen) between the camp and the river.

Rice told us to contact the Wilton office of the Land Use and Planning Commission and to tie ribbons around the trees we wanted to remove. We chose six that were closest to camp, thus most threatening, and I contacted the commission.

About two weeks later, Jennifer Larson, an environmental specialist with the Wilton office, got in touch and suggested we meet at camp. I had emailed her photos of the camp and trees. While sometimes those suffice to make a decision, apparently our site was too complicated for that.

While walking around the lot, Larson was pleased that we had stopped mowing most of the property about a decade ago, and that native seedlings were already sprouting. She also told us just one path from the camp to the river is allowed.

After the state gave its OK, six old white pines in danger of falling were removed from the grounds around the family cabin. Photo by Sheldon Rice

The pine trees we wanted to remove were old, Larson noted, almost at the end of their natural life. The split trunks near the top suggested they were in danger of falling. We might need a building permit for the work we were planning, she told us, if officials decided it was reconstruction rather than repairs.


About two weeks later, she emailed us approval to remove all six trees, and said that we didn’t need a building permit. We would not be allowed to remove the stumps, however, because the tree roots would prevent erosion. That was fine with us. Removing the roots would have added to the already pricy cost (close to $10,000) of removing the trees.

The commission stipulated that in addition to letting seedlings sprout beneath the cut trees (in other words, no mowing) we must plant six native, non-invasive trees in the area before the end of next summer. Specifically, we need to plant a non-shrub species 3 feet in height to 2 inches DBH [meaning 2 inches diameter at breast height] above ground level that will grow into full trees.” After they are planted, Larson would need to see photos of the new trees.

Nancy has already put in her Fedco order, 13 trees altogether: five 12 to 18–inch white spruce, two Allegheny Serviceberry, one red chokeberry, one Carolina Allspice, one northern bush honeysuckle and three wintergreens. For good measure, she ordered a dozen herbaceous perennials. They don’t meet the state requirements, but she knows they’ll look good and benefit the environment. Plus, as always when ordering plants, Nancy went a little overboard.

If the state wants us to do even more, we happily will. Buying plants is always fun.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: tomatwell@me.com.

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