San Juan County Waterfront Parcels

By Merri Ann Simonson

If you own a waterfront parcel in the County, or hope to purchase one, I have detailed below some items to take into consideration. Historically, waterfront parcels were the most coveted investment in the islands but due to ever changing regulations, they are now the most confusing parcels to develop. For REALTORs they can be a challenge to sell due to our inability to give buyers concrete answers to their questions while on site.

Important Considerations


Once you purchase a waterfront lot it is prudent to move forward with your plans as soon as possible as the regulations in the future may change and what you had hoped to build at the time of acquisition may not be approved in the future. The County has said they will never render a parcel unbuildable but regulations may restrict the size of residence and dictate the location of where you can build on the lot.

Residential Pre Application (RPA)

This is a conceptual approval of the footprint for the residence under the rules that exist at the time of review. While the RPA report is non-binding on the County, constructive reliance can be used for planning your new home including the home site, setback, tree removal, the location for the driveway, and well and septic, if applicable. This is a valuable tool to utilize upfront so that your design team and contractor have solid direction from the County early on in the process.

Your designer or architect may process the RPA for you as part of their service. If not, you can hire a land use consultant. The cost to process an RPA with a land use consultant is around $900-$1400 which includes County fees.

As an RPA is not binding, and in light of proposed regulation changes, one should only be used for near term planning. Currently the Shoreline Master Program is being updated and the likely 2017 implementation may change shoreline regulations, possibly voiding some conclusions from an existing RPA. In order to bind or vest your project under the current rules, a complete permit application must be submitted to the County. Once the application is deemed complete that becomes the effective date prescribing which version of the regulations applies.

Shoreline Setbacks

This is a difficult topic to address. The Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) was approved in 2013 and significantly altered the setback regulations by placing the majority of the shorelines in the County into a Critical Areas designation. Basically a very simplistic definition of the current setback regulation impact includes there being a “no touch zone” in the first 35 feet from the shoreline, although a 5 foot trail to the beach is permitted. Only dead, dying and dangerous trees may be removed in the area located behind the first 35 feet to a total of 110 feet from the shoreline. It is possible to brush and clear for view and fire protection in the 110 foot zone and it may be possible to build between 110 and 75 feet if you have a forester design and the clearing planned will have a minimal impact to healthy trees.