Building a Waterfront Bulkhead or Retaining Wall? Read This

As a waterfront property owner, a nice retaining wall adds aesthetic appeal as well as functional protection to your property. Overall, a retaining wall is worth building (no matter the type you go with).

You may have different rules and regulations for shoreline structures where you live and what body of water your home is one; always check any local regulations before purchasing building materials.

To provide guidance, today I’ll break down everything to know before building a retaining wall, the permitting, and  explain a few different retaining wall options out there.

Retaining wall options as a waterfront property owner

The term ‘retaining wall’ is an umbrella classification for bulkheads, seawalls, and other structures along a shoreline.

The purpose of a retaining wall for waterfront property

All retaining walls help prevent shoreline erosion to a degree. Some structures like seawalls offer more protection than structures like wooden bulkheads. Most commonly you will see wooden bulkheads as the shoreline protection structure for smaller bodies of water like lakes and reservoirs.

Wood is common, but I occasionally see bulkheads made of concrete. For large concrete structures (like those butting up to the ocean) these usually fall into the seawall category.

A retaining wall can be formed using few different types of materials, like:

  • Gravel or rocks
  • Steel
  • Concrete
  • Wood
  • Vinyl
  • Riprap (stone),
  • “Lakescaping” with natural plants

Seawalls vs. bulkheads

Seawalls differ from bulkheads because they are typically concrete structures surrounding a large body of water to protect an area from waves, surge, and coastal erosion; bulkheads are smaller and designed to protect residential property.

Seawalls are usually large structures that are owned by the government and taxpayer-funded.

Large concrete seawalls provide more protection against waves and erosion than small private bulkheads, which are commonly made of wood and found along the shoreline of smaller bodies of water like lakes and reservoirs.


wood bulkhead retaining wall

Bulkheads protect shorelines from the impact of waves and erosion to an extent, but also offer more aesthetic appeal than concrete seawalls or levees.

Bulkheads typically consist of round or square posts driven into the water combined with flat wooden planks that contour the shoreline. This general structure helps prevent erosion while tolerating light foot traffic.


lake riffraff retaining wall

Ripraff is the general term that describes boulders, rocks, or concrete blocks that can be used to create a retaining wall. Ripraff offers some shoreline stabilization, and are ideal for lakes.

Obviously easy to install, you may still need a permit to use certain blocks or rocks along the shoreline. Many people will even collect natural rocks on their property to create this as well.

What type of retaining wall to choose

The type and rate of erosion will vary, depending on whether you are on the ocean, a river, or a lake.  Many factors can determine erosion. Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Do the land and the shore constitute the type of soil that can easily wash away?
  • Do you desire something both aesthetically pleasing and functional?
  • Will the structure hold up in the face of storms? Is concrete a better choice?
  • What is permitted? This is obviously the most important question to ask before getting started.

What to know before building a bulkhead or retaining wall

As a homeowner with waterfront property, you will generally have to gain several governmental approvals to fortify the shoreline.

Unless private, every single body of water is within an incorporated entity, and that entity has its own set of rules for shoreline construction.

Add to the rules that the town requires are the mandates of the Department of Environmental Conservation.

You may consider these entities to be an obstacle, but they must be considered in construction projects ranging from dock construction to retaining walls.

The importance of professional retaining wall installation and repair

While the type of structure that you want to install may insulate you from the ravages of the water, it may intensify the same ravages on your neighbor or individuals elsewhere on the lake or river.

Suppose you do not properly install the bulkhead. In that case, it can collapse unexpectedly, leaving a dangerous rubble pile of concrete or rocks or wood or vinyl in its wake. It’s also important to repair these as they age.

Finding a contractor to build or repair a waterfront retaining wall

The solution is always to seek professional help to build a retaining wall on your shoreline.  Searching for “Bulkhead repair in______” or “Shoreline repair in _______” or “Seawall repair in ____”  will typically be a good option.

While using a search engine is a great start for most things, asking a neighbor may be the easiest route in my opinion, since bulkhead construction can vary depending on the body of water and local ordinances.

For that reason, it’s a good idea to select a contractor already familiar with the area.

What to expect from a contractor when building a retaining wall

By now, we’ve learned the importance of a professional contractor to prepare, install, and preserve your bulkhead.   They can even help you work with the town and the DEC, or whoever else is involved in obtaining the necessary permits for your bulkhead.

Most dock builders also offer seawall or retaining wall services for waterfront property, and is a good idea to consult with them on permitting. If you are planning a larger structure, having a licensed engineer is a must.

Of course, you can get permitting yourself, but enlisting the help of a professional who knows the ins and outs of both regulations and bulkheads is very valuable.

Here is an example of local regulations in regards to retaining walls from the website of the New York State DEC:

You will need a handful of permits from the NYS DEC.  They regulate the most important aspects of the project for you to finalize and obtain your permits. They also issue the largest fines (upwards of $3,000-$10,000) and have a full police force the DEC will not hesitate to utilize if necessary.

As with most jurisdictions, if you ignore their own policies you can be issued pretty large fines, in addition to having to remove the structure.

One last note

To conclude, like every other home improvement project you undertake, the best use of your time and money is planning.

For retaining walls, this starts with getting permits and deciding on the type of wall you need, who to hire as your contractor and your budget.

A bulkhead can help create curb appeal for your backyard, and even increase property values; overall it’s a project worth taking on, especially if you already have a dock to match.

Giving your dock a makeover? Be sure to check out these 21 awesome dock accessories I’ve really enjoyed having access to over the years.

This post was updated on July 27, 2022.

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