As the boating season of Summer 2022 draws to a close, if you have found yourself vowing not to go through another prime season without the dock of your dreams, read on. Similarly, if you are contemplating buying waterfront property so you can dock your boat in your backyard, this month’s topic is for you.
Fortunately for me, I have worked for years with Robert “Bob” Simon, of Virginia Beach’s Waterfront Consulting, Inc. Recently, he sat down with me to share the 411 on building a dock in Coastal Virginia.
First, a couple definitions: docks are square or rectangular structures “up against the bulkhead.” Piers, on the other hand, extend into the water and typically terminate in a “T” or an “L.”
Next, when you are selecting a contractor, Simon recommends asking to see examples of docks built five years ago. “You don’t need to see a dock just after they drove the last nail in,” he asserts. Why? Because you want to ensure that the operation does quality work that will stand up over time with straight cuts, boards that don’t cup, and a structure that doesn’t wobble.
Secondly, in the Commonwealth, all docks over water require a permit, whether constructing, altering, or repairing. And, as Simon warns, “Don’t let a contractor tell you otherwise.” Apply for everything you think you might ever desire because you only want to go through the permitting process once. In Virginia, three agencies will need to provide approval: the Army Corp of Engineers, the state, and your locality.
When it comes to situating your dock, Simon recommends placing it as close to the center of your shoreline as possible because you want to be able to easily see who is on it, like unattended children. Also, by not hugging the common property line, next-door neighbors provide each other with enough room to get in and out on their boats.
In terms of design, the state of Virginia allows 400 square feet of deck at the end of your pier, including any float. All or part of this area can be roofed for shade. So, think about how you plan to use your dock and design for all functions: lounging, entertaining, sunbathing, fishing, and launching various craft.
Framing and piers should be built of heavy-duty marine grade material. And hardware should include, at a minimum, 3/4” diameter timber bolts with ogee washers, which are four times the diameter of the bolt.
There are more options for decking, including timber, which needs replaced every 10-15 years, or composites, which Simon feels are a very good choice. Timber should be Number 1 grade or better. Even a Number 2 grade will have knotholes which “pop out and become toe breakers.”
For floating docks, as opposed to their fixed counterparts, Simon is unapologetic regarding his touting of modular EZ Dock. Despite their affordability, he says, this company offers some of the most stable floats and kayak launches available. If you choose a conventional timber float, it needs to be 8-10’ wide; any narrower will feel like “walking on a surfboard.”
As far as boat lifts go, they are most all aluminum and of relatively equal quality in Simon’s opinion. So, avoid letting someone upsell you.
If you are purchasing waterfront property, Simon shares a few key considerations lest you wind up in court because you assumed something that turned out not to be true about what you own. In Virginia, to build a dock or pier, you must be a riparian landowner. That is, you must be platted to “mean low water,” or the average low tide over a period of years. Otherwise, the Commonwealth owns what you thought you did.
When buying, ask for proof that your property actually reaches to the water and does not stop short of it. Do not be fooled by the term “waterfront property,” which can be misleading in this regard. And be advised that an existing bulkhead or pier does not necessarily mean you own to the water because whoever built the structure may not have been properly permitted.
Finally, when considering a so-called “deep water access” property, be sure to study the tide table. And do not skip the physical survey, Simon warns, even if it is not required for your purchase. Take an in-person look at the property at low tide when the water may be anything but deep.
Armed with this information, you will only find yourself in “deep water” when you want to be.
Virginia Beach native and JMU graduate, Chris Ettel, is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Coastal Virginia Building Industry Association board of directors and is past chairman of the CVBIA Remodeler’s Council.