Waterfront Property

Living on or near a lake offers many benefits to homeowners, including a scenic viewshed, recreational access, and increased property value. However, these benefits come with responsibilities. One of the most important things lakefront homeowners can do is to become involved with their local lake associations to understand the most pressing issues of their lake. Joining with fellow citizens on collective lake protection efforts can yield the greatest benefits for both homeowners and for the lake.

The following considerations are applicable for everyone developing and maintaining property, particularly in areas near lakes, rivers and streams.

Designing and Maintaining Your Homesite with Care
Where on your property you build your home makes a big difference in protecting water quality. Start by checking with your local planning office to find out about waterfront building rules and codes.

Non-native vs. native root growth. Graphic courtesy allianceforthebay.org

When designing your site, set back all buildings at least 100 feet (or the greatest distance possible) from the high water mark and leave a minimum 100 foot buffer of natural vegetation along the lakeshore or streambank. Paths leading down to the water should be as narrow as possible and wind gently down to the water so that run-off does not have a direct route to the lake or stream. Locate buildings on slopes with less than a 20% grade. There is a greater likelihood of erosion on steeper slopes, which will cause water to run directly into the lake.

When designing or renovating your homesite, try to minimize areas of impervious surfaces like driveways, patios, or roofs, or choose alternative building materials that allow water to filter into the ground. Also, consider the area above your shoreline as the last opportunity to filter out harmful pollutants and sediments from stormwater runoff. Create, maintain or restore riparian buffer areas so that they can absorb and filter water from rooftops, driveways and other impermeable surfaces, thereby helping to protect your lake.

Riparian Buffers
Land adjacent to lakes, streams and rivers is called the riparian buffer. Properly functioning riparian buffers are areas of undisturbed native vegetation composed of trees, shrubs, wildflowers and a thick duff layer (pine needles, bark mulch, or ground cover). When left undisturbed or replanted with native species (not lawn grass or ornamental trees), riparian buffers help filter pollution from run-off coming from our homes, work and recreation areas.

How to Make a Beautiful Riparian Buffer Garden
Lakefront homeowners can create beautiful waterfront landscaping that also protects the lake.

  • In areas where native vegetation exists, leave at least 100 feet (or the largest strip possible) of undisturbed vegetation between development and the water body.
  • If vegetation has been previously removed, select a variety of native trees, shrubs, grasses and groundcover to replant the area. Use a thick layer of mulch to replace the natural duff layer. Consult your local agriculture extension agent or a native plant professional for a list of species that will work for your area.
  • Leave the area as natural as possible, including slope, depressions and other irregularities.
  • Limit hard surfaces such as patios, rooftops and driveways.
  • Do not channel runoff. Where possible, direct excess runoff to flat, wet areas of your property. This adds an additional nutrient and sediment filter.

The vegetation in the buffer soaks up excess nutrients and absorbs pesticides, herbicides and other pollutants before they reach a lake or stream. If these nutrients reach a water body, they may cause an algal bloom and degrade water quality. Riparian buffers also help contain sediment that is carried by run-off, another pollutant that can degrade water quality. Maintaining or enhancing a natural and functioning riparian buffer is the best way to keep our lakes and streams clean.

The Benefit of Native Plants
Native plants provide multiple benefits to people and contribute to maintaining healthy wildlife habitat. Once established, native plants seldom need watering, mulching, protection from frost or ongoing maintenance. They produce nectar, pollen, and seeds that serve as food for bees, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), native plants provide the following benefits:


  • Lower Water and Maintenance Costs
  • Enhanced Real Estate Values
  • Increased Survivability of Plantings
  • Edible and/or Decorative Products


  • Improved Water and Soil Conservation
  • Reduced Use of Petroleum Products
  • Improved Air Quality/Carbon Sequestration
  • Enhanced Urban Wildlife Habitat
  • Reduced Water Contamination


  • Increased Year-Round Visual Interest
  • Increased Urban Wildlife Viewing
  • Encouraged Link with Nature
  • Enhanced Quality of Life

Keeping It Natural and Sharing the Views
People value lakes because of their natural and scenic beauty, but no one person owns the view. Lakeshore property owners have a responsibility to protect views toward and from the lake. Think of yourself as a partner with others; keep your section of the lakeshore as close to its natural state as possible and encourage your neighbors to do the same. At the same time, you will protect water quality and wildlife habitat.

  • Minimize your building area.
  • Keep the shoreline free from permanent structures like boathouses and gazebos.
  • Maintain a scenic shoreline by leaving an undisturbed and functioning vegetated riparian buffer.
  • If you (or someone before you) removed the native vegetation, plant a new riparian buffer garden using beautiful Montana native plants and encourage other existing natives to flourish. Place new buildings far from the shore and paint them a dark color that blends with the landscape.
  • Avoid bright outdoor lights.
  • Limit pruning and clearing trees within 100 feet of the water.

Waterfront Landscaping
Waterfront landscaping is important to consider whether you are maintaining a natural shoreline or enhancing or restoring your existing shoreline. Following a few lake-friendly tips and having a good landscape plan protects water quality, fish and wildlife, encourages native plants, and enhances the natural beauty of the area.

A sensible approach to waterfront landscaping improves natural habitat and reduces pollution and erosion, while also meeting your living and lake access needs.

  • Enjoy the natural beauty and privacy of your site by maintaining large areas of native trees and vegetation. Native plants require less maintenance than other plants and are more likely to survive and provide better wildlife habitat.
  • Keep lawns, vegetable gardens and other cleared areas small.
  • Don’t rake leaves or other forest floor debris; they help trap and filter water and prevent erosion.
  • Never use fertilizers in riparian buffer areas and minimize their use in adjacent upland areas. If you must fertilize, apply small amounts over a period of weeks. Never apply fertilizer before or right after a heavy rain or when plants are dormant.
  • Choose natural herbicides or pesticides for lawns and gardens. Chemical toxins are poisonous and are easily carried into nearby water bodies.

Protect the Natural Shoreline
A general rule of thumb is that no beach is a good beach – unless it was formed naturally over time. Sand and rocks dumped unnaturally are pollutants that will eventually wash away, requiring continual re-supply. They can also contain nutrients and destroy critical bird, amphibian and fish habitat.

  • Leave existing rocks and aquatic plants to break the waves from boats and wind. These prevent erosion and stabilize the shoreline.
  • Use temporary docks that are put in and removed seasonally. Don’t build a permanent dock as these structures can disturb bottom habitat, alter wave patterns and cause erosion.
  • Use the best products available. Avoid using creosote or pressure treated wood and white Styrofoam. New plastic and vinyl products offer good alternatives.
  • Use a public beach, boat launch or marina for access to the lake. By concentrating recreational uses in one area, you protect the shoreline habitat elsewhere.
  • If you must build along the shore, remember that any alterations to the shoreline require a permit. Tribal lands may require a separate permitting process. Check with your local planning and building department to determine what kind of permit you need.
  • Seawalls and rip-rap: Just Say No. These changes to the shoreline increase wave energy in the lake and erode adjacent properties. They also change natural currents, alter beach dynamics and impact shallow water habitat that is important for invertebrates, fish and many other species of wildlife.
  • Your local conservation district can provide information about waterfront landscaping and protecting natural shorelines.
  • Your local lakeshore regulations will let you know what is allowed on your lake.

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