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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A more natural shoreline acts as a buffer, a windbreak and a filter. © Robert Korth
A more natural shoreline acts as a buffer, a windbreak and a filter.

© Robert Korth

December 2007

The view we prize from land and water

Rules, incentives and awards protect both individual and collective rights to shorelands.

Gregg Breese and
Kathi Kramasz

Anyone who has ever spent time along one of Wisconsin's crystal clear lakes or gurgling streams has had a shoreland experience. Whether you are a canoeist who has floated with the current of the hard-working Wisconsin River, a trouter who has cast flies beneath an overhanging bank, a state park visitor who has cooled off at a beach, or a walker who has spent a few reflective minutes gazing at the calming waves of Lake Michigan, you appreciate how shorelines enrich our lives.

The Public Trust Doctrine, a body of law that dates back to the time when Wisconsin was part of the Northwest Territory, holds the waters of this state in trust for all the people and forever free. Case law from the past 160 years designated the state as keeper of that trust with the responsibility to protect those public rights. So how does the Department of Natural Resources bring together the collective shoreline experiences of past and present generations to ensure their future enjoyment? Education, experience and regulation.

State laws require DNR approvals and local review of proposed development at the water's edge. Permits are required to ensure proposed projects don't supersede the greater public rights to a water body. Polluted runoff, removing vegetation and increasing impervious surfaces on the landward side of the shoreline all degrade quality habitat. So the state legislature created rules and a public trust partnership with counties. The counties can then empower local agencies to regulate zoning and land development. The state establishes minimum standards and assists counties in carrying out those programs. Each county has a set of shoreland zoning ordinances that requires permits before altering shoreland within 1,000 feet of a lake, stream or flowage, or within 300 feet of a river, stream or floodplain.

Most of these county ordinances were adopted in the early 1960s, but the nature of lakeshore development has changed dramatically since that time. Many small cottages and old fishing resorts have been torn down and replaced with larger year-round houses, townhouses and condominiums. Shorelines that were once unreachable by car are now within an easy day's drive and are part of scenic driving tours. In many parts of the state, lakeshores are being redeveloped as new subdivisions are being planned adjacent to rivers and streams. About seven years ago, DNR lakes specialists and community zoning officials decided it was time to bring the codes up to date by revising development rules.

In seeking participation from a wide variety of users, the DNR formed a Citizen Advisory Committee to identify outdated parts of the shoreland rules. The committee's hard work resulted in a draft that was reviewed at public hearings in 2005. Thousands of comments resulted in substantive changes and new ideas for how to make the rule more equitable. A second round of public hearings was held this summer.

So-called "non-conforming structures," like old cottages that were built much too close to the shoreline in the days before any rules were put in place, have been a continuing concern. Septic wastes from these cottages can drain right into the water. Erosion right along the shoreline is hard to slow down and there is both physical noise and visual "noise" from allowing development right to the water's edge. That's why zoning rules require a certain setback from the shoreline. In the past, zoning restricted how much these small cottages could be modified or improved, but the homeowners who bought those cottages as fixer-uppers with dreams of building a much more substantial lakeside home didn't care for that restrictive approach. Rather than proscribing what improvements can or can't be made to buildings and boat houses that were built before ordinances were enacted, the public said build a set of rules that ensures we achieve the environmental quality we want to maintain at the water's edge.

Clearly, some of those old, aging structures that are simply built too close to the shore will have to go and larger buildings that replace them will have to be built back much farther from the shoreline. In developing these new rules, DNR staff turned to the emerging science of stormwater runoff management to figure out how to incorporate new ideas to minimize the consequences of nearshore development. It says to the shoreland property owner, if you can figure out how to limit pollution, maintain the biological values of the shoreline, and keep the look of the shoreline unobtrusive and attractive, we can consider more leeway in how you decide to achieve those goals.

Volunteers help restore a stretch of shoreland by installing a 'biolog, which blends into the native shore to provide a filter and a buffer. © Carmen Wagner
Volunteers help restore a stretch of shoreland by installing a "biolog," which blends into the native shore to provide a filter and a buffer.

© Carmen Wagner

The new code would limit the percent of "impervious surface" – roads, paved areas and other drainage over compacted soil where water quickly flows across the land without filtering out nutrients, sediments and pollutants that otherwise quickly flow into the public waters. If a property owner wants to exceed that percent, they have to take steps to offset those conditions. "Mitigation" might include removing a concrete patio, installing a rain garden or creating a vegetated buffer along a portion of shoreline. Many property owners have the mistaken belief that they will have to stop mowing existing lawns. Mitigation will offer many different options and will only be required if the property owner proposes to change properties in ways that exceed accepted levels.

Other changes in the new rule include proposed limits on the height of shoreland building to protect natural scenic beauty when viewed from the water. Several sections of the new rule clarify and define practices that counties have enforced for years under old codes, such as limits to tree and shrub cutting along the shoreline.

But the state's rules administered by the Department of Natural Resources will do more than just regulate shoreland property owners. We want to foster education and remind people why it is important to protect these fantastic areas. "We also want to recognize those shoreland stewards who are clearly going above and beyond just 'rules' to truly making a difference and improving the shore," said Shoreland Team Manager Gregg Breese.

Beginning in 2008, a Shoreland Stewardship Award program will ask property owners, lakes groups, government agents and neighbors to recognize and commend outstanding examples of shoreland protection. The nomination form includes a rating scale to note the practices shoreline property owners are taking to protect the nearshore area. Points are awarded for installing rain gardens, improving natural shorelines and other rehabilitation. Nominations will be due by December 31 each year. Applications, including photos of the nominated properties, will be reviewed, and winning property managers will receive plaques. Several other nominees will receive honorable mention awards and certificates. Nomination forms are available at Wisconsin's Shoreland Management Program.

During the rules hearings and revisions, Breese heard a lot of good stories from DNR staff, lake groups, wetland volunteers and others about their passion for the shoreline and life-altering experiences that happened on lakeshores, riverbanks and stream sides. To share those compelling moments, Breese started collecting the stories he heard. Those narratives from grandparents and children with tales of fish and birds memories that were funny or romantic all showed how people feel about Wisconsin's lakes and rivers. They are collected in Stories From the Shore, a new DNR publication that includes short stories, poems, Native American lore and other tales combined with some basic science and "quick clips" – fast facts about shoreland resources. Authors include DNR staff, shoreline property owners, shoreline property visitors and other friends. Their tales are organized in three sections – The Land, The Shoreline and The Water. Each section begins with a story and a page listing various plants, animals, bugs and other resources found in that area. Readers will enjoy everything from poetry about New England asters, to a writer's account of a bluff hike on the mighty Mississippi, to a muskrat legend, and even a recipe for coot stew.

"We wanted memories to come alive rather than assign topics," Breese said. The book includes a poem about a northern pike and a mosquito, and a Menominee legend about giant reed grass as well as original artwork contributed by students from Watertown High School, pen and ink drawings from a DNR staffer, photos by amateurs and professionals alike, cartoon drawings and graphics. Photoshop art done by the graphic designer brings the shoreline to life.

Stories From the Shore is available online at Wisconsin's Shoreland Management Program. Cost: $10. It reemphasizes the values Wisconsin people want to sustain along with the look and quality of their shorelines.

Gregg Breese is shoreland team leader for DNR's Watershed Management program in Madison. Kathi Kramasz is a water regulation and zoning specialist at DNR's office in Plymouth.