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Want to know more? | Developing shorelines in unincorporated areas
Improving shoreland regulations
How valuable are lakes and rivers?
Chip Nielsen grew up on Big Portage Lake in Vilas County and he knew that someday he would want to offer his children and wife the opportunity to settle in lake country. In 1990, Nielsen started to realize that dream when he found a home on Muskellunge Lake in Vilas County. The house had been built in the 1940s on a large lot of more than six acres and over 350 feet of sandy frontage for the family to enjoy.
The Nielsens lived there for more than 10 years, but eventually their home needed some improvements, and that's when they found even bigger problems. Nielsen's home was considered "nonconforming." It was located only 42 feet from the ordinary high water mark of Muskellunge Lake, and statewide standards required that all structures be set back at least 75 feet from the shore. The Nielsens faced three options – remodel the existing home, move it back from the water's edge or build a new house a little farther away from the water. Further, if the Nielsens chose to remodel the residence, any repairs, alterations or additions would be limited to 50 percent of the assessed value of the home. Since the house was not in the best shape, the assessment was low and did not permit the desired improvements within the 50 percent cap.
Nielsen could have moved the existing house back to 75 feet, but that option would have blocked access to his garage. The final option of building a new house would have resulted in losing a beautiful grove of white pines and that was simply not an option in his mind.
The Nielsens decided to sell the property to someone who could live with the property restrictions while they searched for a new lakeshore home. He put his dream home up for sale and eventually found another property on Harmony Lake in Vilas County. He admits that he still misses the many friendships his family had nurtured along the sandy shores of Muskellunge Lake.
Today Chip Nielsen is a member of the Vilas County Planning and Zoning Committee and is working with an advisory committee to help the Department of Natural Resources review the state standards for shoreland development. He hopes to help other families avoid the tough decisions his family had to make, or at least provide more options.
The most significant issue this committee will face is dealing with people who own older lakeside homes that don't meet changing building codes, Nielsen said. The number of so-called "nonconforming structures" – homes, sheds and other outbuildings – is a tremendous problem on many lakes. And it is extremely frustrating for homeowners who are caught between protecting their property and wanting to take care of their lake, he said. Nielsen is encouraged that his work on the DNR advisory committee is helping steer the DNR managers and zoning administrators in new directions when regulating nonconforming structures, as well as handling other zoning issues.
Chuck Mitchell, another advisory committee member, shares Nielsen's hope that the committee will develop a set of recommendations that will help waterfront owners be good stewards of Wisconsin's lakes and rivers. Mitchell lives in southern Wisconsin and has a second home on Long Lake, part of the Eagle River area chain of lakes.
"While people, including me, are drawn to the beauty of shorelands, there seems to be a lack of understanding of how we impact those shorelands," Mitchell said. "I think we need to keep in mind that not everyone instinctively knows how to accommodate development while protecting sensitive shoreland areas."
Mitchell's concerns about how development changes shorelands are echoed in many research findings. Building homes and businesses along a lake or a stretch of river changes both the land and the water. On land when native plants and trees are removed to make room for construction, the vegetation is often replaced with hard surfaces like roads, driveways and roofs. These impervious surfaces don't allow rain and snow melt to soak into ground. Water quickly runs off into adjacent lakes and rivers, carrying pollutants that harder surfaces can't filter. Studies (many of them completed in Wisconsin) found that when as little as 10 to 15 percent of the land around a lake or river is paved or covered, water quality, aquatic habitat and aquatic species diversity decline rapidly.
Development brings other changes too. Visual beauty and the aesthetic qualities draw people to the lakeshore who seek quiet, open space, solitude and a place to experience nature in a more natural setting. As more development is allowed or as established homes expand, many of Wisconsin's lakeshores and riverbanks start to resemble suburban neighborhoods rather than sustaining the feel of "up north" cabins and cottages.
Development patterns also affect the nonhuman neighbors. Research documents that constructing one house can change wildlife habits up to 1,500 feet away as animals alter their travel patterns or young become more susceptible to predation. Where many houses are built, these impacts are magnified.
For example, one study measured calls from green frogs as an indicator of aquatic health along northern Wisconsin waters. Green frogs are shoreline-dependent and are common along lakes, ponds and streams. The study found that green frog populations decline as more homes are built along the shoreline and disappear altogether when the housing density reaches approximately 30 homes per mile or about a home for every 175 feet of shoreline. Existing zoning standards allow over 50 homes per mile of shoreline in unsewered areas and over 80 homes per mile in sewered areas.
Mounting evidence that current shoreland development standards were inadequate to protect water quality, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty led the Department of Natural Resources to work with Nielsen, Mitchell and others on an advisory committee to review Wisconsin's shoreland regulations.
Since 1966 Wisconsin's Shoreland Management Program has aimed to "further the maintenance of safe and healthful conditions; prevent and control water pollution; protect spawning grounds, fish and wildlife habitat; control building sites, placement of structures and land uses and reserve shore cover and natural beauty." The program set statewide standards for how shorelands could develop in unincorporated areas. Counties were then required to adopt, administer and enforce these minimum standards or adopt more protective standards.
Those codes and regulations have their foundation in much older water law, the Public Trust Doctrine as incorporated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, interpreted in Wisconsin Territorial Law of 1836 and embodied in the State Constitution of 1848. Those unique laws stated that the navigable waters flowing into the Mississippi River, St. Lawrence River and all the carrying waters between would remain "common highways and forever free." In Wisconsin, more than 150 years of case law have interpreted the Public Trust Doctrine to define our collective rights to shared water resources. Those cases often heat up as our beliefs about equality and citizenship rub against our defense of private property, self-determination and free enterprise about water use and shoreline access.
The current advisory committee mirrors those myriad interests in public water. Its 28 members represent waterfront property owners, like Mitchell and Nielsen, realtors, homebuilders, conservation groups and lake associations. "We've tried to get a broad view geographically and a broad range of interests to help us balance public and private rights," says Al Shea, who directs the DNR Bureau of Watershed Management. "We wanted advice from people who have to live with the rules every day – people who own waterfront property, develop it, and sell it; as well as people who have to interpret, administer and enforce the rules; and people who represent the public's interest in clean water, scenic beauty, good habitat and recreational opportunities."
This committee is developing its final recommendations and this fall a series of listening sessions held around the state will share these recommendations with the public. After DNR gets reaction from waterfront property owners, anglers, hunters, and others who enjoy Wisconsin's waters, revised recommendations will be reviewed by the advisory committee and the Natural Resources Board.
"We are hoping to open up this very old code to provide more flexibility for homeowners and counties while preserving wildlife habitat and water quality."
Jerry Deschane, who represents the Wisconsin Builders Association on the advisory committee, echoes that sentiment. His members express frustrations that the current rules prohibit what appear to be relatively small projects and simple modifications to complete remodeling projects.
Builders most often run into problems when working on homes and other structures that are classified as nonconforming, like Nielsen's home on Muskellunge Lake, Deschane said. "We need a set of regulations that a lay person can understand and allows for simple upgrades of existing homes. I hope that this committee can agree to standards that will let that happen and improve the environment, or at least prevent any further harm," Deschane stated.
Phil Gaudet, one of three representatives from county zoning offices said his Washington County Planning and Parks Department just wrapped up a three-year effort to update their shoreland zoning ordinance. He found the statewide issues mirror concerns in his county. I hope the counties can live with the new statewide standards, he said. Many communities will choose to do more to protect unique areas, but at a minimum, we want requirements that protect shorelands everywhere in the state – water quality, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty.
Carmen Wagner is a water management specialist in DNR's Shoreland Section of the Bureau of Watershed Management.