Even if you’re new to land investing, you may have already heard that wetlands are a reason to be cautious about vacant land.
Due to the protections placed on them, building on wetlands can be difficult.
But here’s the problem…you’ve found the perfect piece of land, and you’re not sure you can pass it up.
Is there any way to get around the building issue?
What should you know before you buy a property with wetlands?
If you’re looking to invest in a parcel with wetlands, you shouldn’t go into the process blind.
There are risks associated with this purchase.
Keep these top things in mind so that you can make informed decisions about whether to build on wetlands.
1. Wetlands are areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater
Here’s one of the first questions you may have.
What is a wetland?
How may it impact the land I’m purchasing or the land I want to build on?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines wetlands as “areas where water covers the soil or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season.”
A wetland is an ecosystem within itself, which is defined by the presence of water flowing and which supports an array of unique plant and animal life.
Some wetlands may be saturated during certain times of the year while others may be saturated permanently.
Because wetlands are an ecosystem, they play an essential role in the environment.
There are two different types of wetlands that you may encounter when purchasing land: coastal/tidal wetlands and inland/non-tidal wetlands.
The type you encounter will largely depend on which area of the country you are in.
Coastal/tidal wetlands are found along the Atlantic, Pacific, Alaskan, and Gulf coasts.
Inland/non-tidal wetlands are more commonly found on floodplains along rivers and streams.
They may also be found in isolated depressions surrounded by dry land.
It is more common for these wetlands to be seasonal.
For more basic information about wetlands, you can visit the Wetlands Factsheet Series by the EPA.
General information can help boost your understanding of the challenges you may face if you choose to purchase land with wetlands or build on wetlands.
2. Before purchasing a property, hire a professional to determine if you have wetlands on your property
Wetlands professionals are hired to identify and delineate wetlands.
In general, landowners or developers will hire someone when they want to build on wetlands.
There are no government-approved programs that certify individuals for this work.
However, a person in this field will typically have professional experience and comprehensive training on wetlands issues.
You should look for someone who has performed wetland delineations, assessed wetland functions and values, analyzed wetland impacts, and recommended and designed wetland mitigation projects.
To find a wetland professional, you can search the phone book or look online for environmental services.
You may also consider contacting your local government planning office and asking for a list of professionals in the area.
It is advisable to hire a professional because the wetland consultant will likely have deep knowledge of wetlands in the area and be able to recommend a suitable course of action.
Here are a few items to consider as you begin looking for wetland professionals:
Has the individual had additional training or expertise in related fields? Some you may consider are ecology, botany, social science, hydrology, etc.
Is the individual familiar with local, state, and federal wetland regulations?
Does the individual have training or experience in the use of the 1987 Corps of Engineers wetland delineation manual? What about the appropriate regional supplement?
How long has the individual been in this field and doing wetlands work?
Who were some of the individual’s past clients? Do they have any references, reviews, or testimonials they can provide to you?
If you’re considering a consulting firm, find out exactly who you’d be working with.
How much will the individual charge for their services? How does this compare to others in the area?
3. As a free alternative, use The Wetlands Mapper to help you do research
Don’t have the funds to hire a private consultant for a property you might not even buy?
You’re not alone!
While the only way to be 100% certain about the presence of wetlands on a property is to hire a wetland consultant (or request a visit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to perform a wetland identification and delineation of the property), there are other solutions.
For one, you can use The Wetlands Mapper.
The Wetlands Mapper is a free tool from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and it helps you identify whether wetlands are located on a parcel of land in a quick and easy manner.
Again, this tool is less of a “sure thing” than hiring a consultant to delineate your property.
Yet, it can be a good starting point and will give you more information than you had previously.
In addition, while not free, MapRight allows you to identify wetlands along with many other useful property features.
If you are interested in a Mapright subscription, you can use our referral link.
4. Wetlands are protected areas and thus may pose an issue to building
One of the primary reasons that you may not be able to build on wetlands is because they are protected areas.
Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world and also play an integral role in the ecology of the watershed.
In fact, wetlands are so important that there is even a World Wetlands Day!
Filling in wetlands may also have negative consequences for property owners in the surrounding area as the water contained by the wetland will need to go somewhere else.
For these reasons, the government regulates who has the ability to significantly alter a wetland.
The US Army Corps of Engineers is typically in charge of enforcing wetlands regulations as delineated by Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
However, the EPA has several programs protecting wetlands – particularly in well-known areas like the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and more.
Generally, a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers is needed depending on what you want to do to the land.
Still, there are a few exceptions for certain ongoing (but not new) farming and forestry uses.
5. You may need a wetland permit for certain activities
As mentioned above, a wetland permit is often required for certain activities.
For example, even if you already obtained a sanitary sewer Permit-to-Install (PTI) or local zoning permit, you’d still need separate permits that specifically allow impactful activities in the wetlands.
You should begin the process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and go from there.
Please keep in mind that the permitting process can be a long one.
For those who are just looking to build a home, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has an easier nationwide permitting process for residential projects that will only impact 1/2 an acre or less of non-tidal wetlands.
However, even if you get a permit, you will still be building in an area that is a natural waterway.
This means you will most likely face continuous challenges with water management in and around your building.
For this reason, you should seriously consider alternatives to building on a wetland.
6. Wetlands are valuable for certain types of investors
While it may be difficult for you to build on wetlands, it doesn’t mean they’re valueless.
So, depending on what type of investor you are, wetlands may be appealing because they’re such a unique type of ecosystem and can still be used for recreational purposes.
If your property is entirely wetlands, it probably won’t hold a tremendous amount of value.
However, if the property is only partially wetland, then it can still be a great investment to make.
Don’t pump your breaks until you’ve fully evaluated the land and received advice from wetland consultants.
7. Wetlands are ideal for privacy
One of the benefits of wetlands is the amount of privacy that they offer.
While not all of the land is ideally suited for development, you can build on a portion of the land (as long as it’s not jurisdictional) and keep the rest of it natural.
If you’re not inclined to live in an area that has a lot of development, it inherently protects you from many of the issues you may run into in more urban or suburban environments.
8. Wetlands are home to different species
One of the reasons that it’s restricted to build on wetlands is because they are home to a variety of different species.
While this may not be an attractive feature to someone looking to build a home or a business on a parcel, it often is a draw for outdoor enthusiasts.
Depending on why you’re seeking vacant land, wetlands can be appealing.
Especially if you’re looking for recreational land to hunt or camp on, you need not shy away from wetlands.
As long as you can build on a portion of that land, you may be okay to invest.
9. There are complications when investing in or near wetlands
As you may have gathered, wetlands bring some complications that every land buyer should recognize.
As such, this type of purchase should not be made by everyone, and you should understand what you’re undertaking before doing so.
Not all wetlands are jurisdictional
As mentioned above, wetlands are often protected by the government because they have “relatively permanent” connectivity to navigable waters of the United States.
They may also be protected for environmental reasons.
This is constantly changing with legislation, which is why it’s always worth checking current regulations.
Keep in mind that not all wetlands are regulated by the federal government.
An isolated wetland – one that does not have surface connections to water like pasture ponds, lagoons, or sinkholes – would not be jurisdictional.
Neither would agricultural lands that stay wet for particular types of crops (think rice fields or crawfish ponds).
This means that the government does not have regulatory authority over what happens to it.
As mentioned previously, you typically need to hire a consultant to determine whether you have jurisdictional wetlands on your property.
If the consultant you hire determines that your wetland is jurisdictional (meaning that the government has authority over it), then you can hire them to complete a wetland delineation.
During this time, the consultant will identify and mark the edges of the jurisdictional wetland with either survey stakes/flags, GPS, or both.
This way, you’ll know which part of the land you’re able to develop.
There is also a process for construction near a jurisdictional wetland.
We know that constructing on a jurisdictional wetland can be difficult.
However, even if you’re not looking to build on a wetland, constructing near it can be quite a project as well.
This is because many construction activities will likely impact the wetlands, even if they are not taking place within the wetland boundaries.
Again, you will first need to determine whether or not there are jurisdictional wetlands near your project (use the process above).
Once you determine that you are constructing near a wetlands, you have three options:
This practice means completing a project without disturbing the wetland.
If you do this, you can avoid the need for certain types of permits.
However, you should still use best management practices to prevent your work from impacting the land.
This method will require a permit because you are impacting the wetland.
However, you will attempt to impact the smallest portion of the wetland possible, and you can often circumvent some of the slower permitting processes because your project impacts the wetlands less.
Even if your plans will greatly impact the wetlands, you can include a plan for mitigation in your permit application to help your chances of getting a permit.
For example, perhaps you’ll build a new wetland somewhere else on the property.
You want to make sure that your mitigation will be equal to or greater in value to the portion of the wetland that you will destroy during your project.
Even if you can build, maintenance will be significant.
You can build on wetlands as long as they’re not jurisdictional, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be fighting an uphill battle.
When wetlands are filled, the water that makes them wet has to go somewhere.
If you’re building on these lands, you have to consider that your home or business may be damaged by this water.
As a property owner, you could spend a great deal of time and money repairing this.
Rather than investing in wetlands, you may consider a different type of property with lower maintenance.
Wetlands are complicated and come with a variety of risks.
While it is possible to build on some wetlands, there are obstacles that will stand in your way.
Stop and consider if you want to work through these, or if they’re better left alone.
10. Wetlands provide a beautiful view
While there are a number of risks, one draw to wetlands is that they’re an area of land with a view.
You may not be able to afford land in the mountains or on the shore.
However, wetlands provide a unique alternative.
They’re an uninterrupted view of nature that you can get for a low price.
The downside is that they’re often difficult (if not impossible) to build on.
So, there is a trade-off in that respect.
11. Sometimes it’s easier to avoid wetlands altogether
You may think you’ve found the perfect parcel of land.
But let’s be honest, there are some processes that make development really difficult.
If possible, it’s always recommended to avoid constructing on wetlands.
If you know that a potential property has wetlands, build elsewhere if possible.
Outside of permit requirements and environmental regulations, some construction projects fail because it is difficult to build in areas that are prone to wetness.
Thus, if you have the option, avoid wetlands altogether, unless you are just looking to use the land for recreational purposes.
Long story short?
Wetlands, although beautiful, can be a true hassle in the realm of land buying and developing.
Be sure to thoroughly consider your choice before you decide to build on wetlands.
While a parcel may seem ideal, wetlands can complicate any plan to develop.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.
31 thoughts on “Can You Build on Wetlands? 11 Things (2023) You Must Know”
Looking to buy a 1 acre lot. Front part is dry. The back part, which is 1/2 acre is wetland. It has already had a wetland study. Would this still be suitable to build on the front half and stay off of the wetlands?
Typically there are setback requirements around a wetland that will also impact where you can build on your lot. Every county also has slightly different requirements for septic and well permits so you should give them a call to go over what these requirements are and how they may impact the area of your property that is buildable.
I hope this helps!
You missed one vital point. The government cannot prevent anyone from using wetlands for agricultural purposes normal in the area, including growing crops as well as for arbor farms. the property owner can also make normal changes to the wetlands that fall within the normal scope of work as long as they do not intentionally block the natural flow of water. I live in Florida. Much of the ‘classified wetlands on private lands’ are at best border line ACCURATE. Even if you dig a man-made pond, the epa can and regularly does classify it as wetlands. I say pay me for my land if you want to protect it, if not, stay off of my farm.
By the way, where are my manners, thank you for the article. Very informative with very valuable information and I will be subscribing. thank you and have a wonderful day!
John from sunny florida 🙂
Hello Juan, thank you for this additional information. Much appreciated!
Thank you for compiling this useful information.
I too live in FL and I am thinking of buying a piece of land with wetlands and was wondering if we could chat, as I have a few questions you may be able to help me with. If so my email is [email protected]
Thank you both.
We are looking at a property that has wetlands, but the front of the property alongside the road has two dilapidated cottages. Since they were there already, could we demolish them, Rebuild and rent them out, wIthout worrying about regulations?
Hello Trisha, we would be careful in a situation like this since the cottages could have been built before wetland regulations came into play or they could have been built illegally. You may want to reach out to both the county and your local Army Corps of Engineers Office to see what is allowed.
I am planning to buy a sigle family home in a community and recently came to know that the lot I am interested was a wet land before but it is filled now and i could see homes already built around my lot. is it ok to consider such community home or will there be any issues to my home due to the previous wet land. they have leveled all the ground andit does not looks like there was a wet land before. need your suggestions on what if i go for the home and what details i should seek from builder to be sure.
Hi Eric, it really depends on whether a federal or state-designated wetland is still located on the property. I would check with a local real estate attorney or broker to see if a wetland still exists on the lot and, if so, what rules and regulations are in place.
My Question is “what do yOu do when You bought Property next to property that had wetlands because you thoUght It to be protected and unbuilable but now someone boUght It aNd cleared almost all of it Exposing your once private lot and DOESN’T seem to kNow or care that they have wetlands.” Ive spoke to dnr And read so many articles that this shouldnt happen but to turn them in could cost them 1,000s in fines but i still have the humanity of this is going to be My neighbor and im hOping when they Go to build their home thEy find out then….. we tried to talk To him buT he is so consumed in the Fact He is Land is ag he cAn dO whatever … sigh this could eventually add water to my drivE way or yArd…. but do i be a FRiendly neighbor or stop it now . TIa
Hello Jamie, that sounds like a tough situation. I can certainly understand that you don’t want to create bad blood with your neighbor, but you also don’t want increased flooding in your yard! I would suggest that you speak with a local attorney to see what your options are. You may even be able to find an attorney who will offer free 30-minute consultation calls to start.
Hi Jessica It’s really nice video So match good information I have questions if you can call me 6463385869
Thank you, Mark. Please feel free to call me at any time (917.444.5985).
Is it legal to build on wetlands that are home to bald eagles and other animals?
Hello Janice, if there are both wetlands and endangered species on your property, it will be difficult. You will first have to reach out to your local Army Corps of Engineers office for a permit to build on or near the wetlands. You will also want to reach out to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to see if you will need a permit from them due to the presence of endangered species. There may also be state level permits required.
I purchased 30 acres of land in Dryden NY. It has about 14 Acres of Preserves. The beavers are building a dam off of Hwy 366 and it is causing flooding. I spoke with the Highway department and they said it nothing that I can do because I planning on building in Wetlands. I purchased the property from a reputable company that made sure that the utilities were bought to the land. I am totally confused about this new drainage problem and I don’t know where to start. Should I get a lawyer or should I find a developer to start the building process and hope for the best?
Hello Joanne, I am sorry to hear about your situation. Unfortunately, building on a wetland is very difficult, and even if you are legally able to do it, flooding and drainage can be major headaches. I would start by getting a wetlands delineation done (if you don’t done so already) and also speaking with an architect and engineer about how to build around whatever wetlands exist as well as what may be done to improve drainage or protect against flooding.
Thank you for this great article, I found it very helpful. I have 10 acers of land in VT and it was a hay field for generations prior. A previous land owner put a ditch running through the middle of it to help with flooding that would happen due to the land being a slight bowl shape. I want to dig a pond where the flooding happens but it’s classified class 2 online. What are my chances here? I just want to make it “more wet” and the issue was caused by a manmade issue to begin with.
Hello Michaela, if you are simply trying to improve the wetlands, I would think this would be ok, but you should give the local Army Corps of Engineers office a call. You may also want to check with the state department regulating enviornmental conservation.
I’m interested in purchasing property 3 Acres on a busy highway in N.Y. and the maps I’m looking at show federal wetlands zoned suburban agricultural. i would
like to park my equipment dump trucks and operate agricultural by hauling mulch i dont need to build but am i able to clear the land of brush and small trees
716-444-0214 incase you have any questions
Hello John, I do believe some minor activities are allowed on wetlands, but I would check with your local Army Corps of Engineers Office.
Hello Erica, we bought a lot little under one acre. It is a wooded lot sloping from front to back(full walkout basement) and found later there is a wetland(Category 2) on the very corner of the lot and on the lot next to our lot(not sold yet). Our designer informed us about it while discussing the preliminary floor plan. Then I remember.. on our lot visit before purchase we noticed a significant wet area with a thin layer of water(it was the time when snow thawed). We asked the builder the reason of that wet spot and he said it will go away after grading, he never mentioned it is a wetland. Now the builder and designer both assuring it won’t create a problem as long it is not touched. The survey shows wetland and setback requirements and designer is following those. We understand the part what we cannot do on and near the wetland. We are concerned about moisture, bugs, frogs or any other potential issues later on. They say the slope is already going towards the wetland so there should not be any concern of flooding. However, we are still not comfortable. We even asked about hiring a professional but they didn’t acknowledge the request. Designer did talk a little about DELINEATION(which we don’t understand completely) and said things normally don’t go in one’s favor if going that route. We are reading about permits and permissions, US Army Corps of Engineers, EPA… is overwhelming for us. What should we do/whom to contact?? Any sugesstions. We would really appreciate if you can guide us.
Hello Kang, if I personally were undertaking the project, I would have a delineation done and speak to the local army corps office because I would want to make sure I am doing everything 100% correct. However, you should be aware that doing this will likely complicate your project. To get a wetlands delineation done, you should speak with a local environmental specialists or biologist. There are usually at least a couple companies that can offer these services. Your state department of environmental conservation (or similar agency) may also offer the service for free, so you could start by contacting them.
I have purchased 3.25 acres with a creek running through it that separate my lot leaving a 1/4 acre on the other side of this creek. It’s fairly good sized enough for a paddle board or something like that. My question is what or who do I contact in order to get permission for a raised walkway from the higher ground not in a flood zone, down to the creek bank, no docks just a boardwalk.
Hello Ray, I would recommend starting with the county (or city) planning and department of environmental conservation.
Hello. I am looking for legal documents about altering the buffer areas to wet lands? Is this allowable? Is there a permit needed if it is allowable?
Hello Melisa, there is likely a permit needed if you are within the setback zone (usually about 50′ from the wetlands), but I would recommend speaking with your local Army Corps of Engineers office.
My brother has had a shed on his property for 30 years. Now with the new mapping of wetlands it is considered wetlands. Does he need to move his shed?
Hello! It’s possible that the structure would be grandfathered in. However, you could always speak with your local county/city planning department to confirm.