If you own waterfront property and have a functional bulkhead that is at least 100’ long and has been in place since before August 1977, you have a very valuable asset. According to the regulations of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”), anything landward of such a bulkhead is not subject to the DEC’s wetlands jurisdiction. In contrast, if the property is not bulkheaded or the bulkhead is less than 100’ long or was constructed after August 1977, then any construction in the area within 300 feet landward of the tidal wetland boundary is likely subject to tidal wetlands regulations, and will require a DEC tidal wetlands permit. All too often, people overlook the importance of their pre-August 1977 bulkhead being “functional”, and, through failure to apply routine maintenance, find that the DEC is claiming work done behind the bulkhead should have been done pursuant to a Tidal Wetlands permit. In such situations, it is not uncommon for DEC to require any structure built without a required permit to be removed and to impose substantial penalties on the offender.
What is a “functional bulkhead”? Essentially, it is a bulkhead that functions as designed and is maintained in working order. Factors considered by the DEC in the determination of functionality include: if more than 50% of the footprint of the structure is missing; if the structural integrity is compromised; if the tidal wetland boundary has moved landward of the bulkhead; and, if sections are missing. In practice, the DEC tends to err on the side of caution and often will declare even a slightly damaged bulkhead non-functional if it fails to operate as designed. For example, if the bulkhead does not prevent soil from eroding into the water or the wetlands from moving landward, it may be deemed non-functional and the DEC will assert jurisdiction landward of the bulkhead.
The DEC’s regulations allow ordinary maintenance and repair, not involving expansion or substantial restoration, reconstruction or modification, to be performed without a permit. While this should be done regardless of when the bulkhead was constructed to avoid having to obtain a tidal wetlands permit in order to make substantial repairs, for the reasons set out above, it is critically important that the property owner regularly perform routine maintenance if the bulkhead was built prior to August 1977.