Building a Waterfront Home: Not for the Faint of Heart!

Back in the old days you could pick up a waterfront piece of property and pretty much do whatever the heck you like with it. You could tuck your cottage right up to the waters edge, slap on a dock, a boat shed, or a boat house with no limitations. We all drool over instagram pics of the Muskokas dressed up in nautical glory and wish we could do that at our place too. If you are one of the lucky few, then you are likely grandfathered in, but for the rest of us we get to follow the new, stricter, rigorous regulations. The wild west of cottage country and devil may care days are over.

It’s VERY different now. If you have never built on the water or bought waterfront property before. Read this first.

Pretty much every region is putting in place stronger and stronger regulations that you will need to navigate in order to get permits and they are constantly changing. Different water has different rules (river, ocean, lakes, or ditches) and every jurisdiction has different local rules. I will speak to my experience in BC.

First, you need to become very familiar with a word you will never use again and that word is ‘riparian’.

This is the setback you need to observe. I’ve talked more about the riparian setback at our lakefront more than I care to reminisce.

In our area, the provincial set back is 15 meters from the high water mark and the regional setback is 30 meters. It’s confusing to have 2 governing bodies but the short of it is that they both apply, in essence. So the first thing that you’re going to need is a surveyor first to set these marks on your site map.

Next, your new best friend will be your Environmental Engineer who will help you navigate to process and also do one of the most critical reports needed to get your DP (development permit). 

We have been working with Jason at EcoScape Environmental He and his team have been great. They have in depth local knowledge, a wealth of time spent in the business, and their close relationship with the Regional District has made me feel confident in their work. They have also given me great advice all along the way. (Thanks Jason!)  Although really we are still just at this beginning of the process together, throughout the build they will come and inspect the site to make sure we are following all the rules set out in the DP.

Key Budget Point - Environmental Engineers set up what they call a Performance Bond which is the amount that the planning department holds until completion. (We will get 90% back upon completion and 10% back when they check up on you in two years) It is established based on a percentage of the cost to remediate and replant sensitive areas. It’s actually 125% of that anticipated cost. Basically, this is a monetary incentive to make sure you do what you say you will do!

So let’s break down the DP…

Building Permit? Development Permit? What’s the difference?

So a Development Permit is the first step. In layman’s terms it’s the big picture approval of your idea with all the site planning included. The actual Development Permit outlines, through submitting multiple reports and drawings, the specific conditions that a build must conform to based on your location and zoning. 

I strongly encourage you to share your plans with the planning department before you get started so you don’t end up having to redo something because it doesn’t conform. They are an invaluable resource. Because we aren’t building anything within the 15-meter setback, we only have to deal with the regional planning department, if we were dealing with structures grandfathered in within the 15, we would be dealing with another can of worms.

So for us, we need to go here:

The timeline is 6-8 weeks

And the cost for us - $705 (more of you need a variance)

Understanding what you can and can’t do on a piece of property is critically important before you purchase or design. The last thing you want is to fall in love with an idea and then be told that you can’t do it. Personally, I hate being told what I can’t do :)

Once you have satisfied all of the requirements (and let me tell you there are a lot), submitted the documents, paid the fees, and gotten approval you can then move on to your building permit. But we’ll leave that conversation for another post.

Some examples of the things you will need (not in every city but this should give you a sense of the scope)


  • Proof of ownership of the property. A current title search no more than 90 days old (available from the BC Registrar of Land Titles) is required.
  • Existing covenants and previously issued development permits registered on the title.
  • Agent authorization – This is required only where the owner has decided that another person is to act on the owner’s behalf for the purposes of being the contact and providing direction for the application. All owners on title must sign authorization.
  • Site Profile OR Site Profile Waiver On Contaminated Sites (See attachment)
  • Drawings, plans and professional reports
  • A site plan
  • Signed Schedule 5 undertaking to retain a qualified environmental professional. The letter is required in order to ensure completion of the development permit requirements.
  • Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by a qualified environmental professional in a report that considers the development permit guidelines from the Official Community Plan with mitigation/enhancements to be directed to areas above the High Water Mark.
  • Registration of a no build/no disturb covenant for the required leavestrip area
  • Geotechnical Assessment/Hazard Assessment prepared by a qualified professional engineer registered in BC specializing in geotechnical issues in a report that considers the development permit guidelines from the Official Community Plan
  • Plan of the entire site with current existing grades and proposed finished grades at all boundaries of the site, and the area of proposed construction and site disturbance clearly indicated.
  • 2 copies of the Geotechnical Assessment
  • Erosion Protection and Sediment Control Plan
  • Drainage Plan
  • Securities to assure all works as determined the qualified professionals.
  • Application Fee


Exhausted yet? Did I put you to sleep? Trust me, I don’t love this stuff either but I can tell you from experience that if you hand this responsibility off to someone else completely, something will go wrong. If this list is so overwhelming that you want to run the other way, then you probably should not take on a build. When you own a property and you are planning to take on a building project, you need to make sure you intimately understand your lot and the rules and regulations that govern what you can do. Like I said before, everywhere is different so the above information is only a reflection of my process and you should be sure to do your own research and due diligence for your own property. 

If you have any questions please let me know, I will do my best to steer you in the right direction.