Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Built too close to the water, no screening vegetation, little habitat for wildlife. This kind of development disrupts a lake's ecosystem. © John Hagengruber
Built too close to the water, no screening vegetation, little habitat for wildlife. This kind of development disrupts a lake's ecosystem. © John Hagengruber
A well-screened home with a vegetative buffer that protects water quality and provides wildlife habitat. © Carmen Wagner
A well-screened home with a vegetative buffer to protect water quality and provide wildlife habitat. © Carmen Wagner

October 2003

Life on the edge

The view is magnificent, the recreation unmatched, but waterfront homeowners find some special requirements of lakeside living hard to live with. Can we help while protecting the waterways?

Carmen Wagner

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.

Want to know more?
To find out more about the revision process and locations of upcoming listening sessions, visit DNR Shoreland Management Program.

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.

How valuable are lakes and rivers?
What price would you place on a lake or river? Many would say they are priceless, others have tried to quantify the physical and intrinsic values of public waters.

One measure? Tourism. Wisconsin travelers spent an estimated $11.7 billion in 2002 – up from $11.4 billion in 2001 and water-related activities play heavily into those numbers. The Wisconsin Department of Tourism recently completed a survey of Chicago and Twin Cities vacationers who ranked boating, fishing and swimming as the number 1, 2, and 3 most memorable activities from their summer vacations in Wisconsin.

Beyond the people who visit Wisconsin's shorelands, the lakes and rivers are especially important to the people who live along them. A five-year study in Maine of 900 lakefront properties on 34 lakes found that an improvement of three feet in depth of water clarity would result in $11 to $200 more per foot of property value. A recent Minnesota study found similar results estimating that lakeside properties around recovering lakes increase in value by tens of thousands of dollars or more with a three-foot improvement in water clarity.

Lastly, a Canadian study placed a value on having a river view. Using property values and rental information in the City of Saskatoon, researchers found that the river contributed approximately $1.2 million annually to the city by improving the aesthetic environment within the city limits.

These four examples just touch on the economic value that quality waterways add to local economies. They put a concrete measure on intangible experiences like helping a child catch a first fish or enjoying the northern lights at your grandparents' cabin.

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.

Improving shoreland regulations
Statewide standards for managing shorelands are only 37 years old, so why change them now? Three main goals for the rewrite include:

1. Recommending standards that provide better shoreland protection. Research during the last 20 years has shown a disturbing trend. As more people want to develop more shoreland, current minimum standards are not adequate to protect clean water, provide wildlife habitat or preserve natural scenic beauty. The DNR hopes new standards can be developed to maintain the integrity of Wisconsin's lakes and rivers.

2. Providing greater clarity in the standards. Many terms in the current standards are ambiguous or unclear. By providing clearer definitions and standards, it should be easier for the counties to administer the standards, easier to gauge if standards are being consistently applied across the state, and easier for the public to understand the requirements.

3. Offering more flexibility while enhancing environmental protection. The current standards do not provide flexibility to develop in certain unique circumstances. The program does not allow local innovation as communities develop shoreland zoning ordinances suited to local conditions and needs. By offering property owners the option to offset the environmental consequences of proposed changes and by providing counties with incentives to protect waterways, the Department of Natural Resources hopes to provide more options to the public, while providing more protection for Wisconsin's lakes, rivers and streams.

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.

Developing shorelines in unincorporated areas
Wisconsin law (Section 59.692, Wisconsin Statutes) requires counties to adopt and enforce zoning ordinances that meet or exceed the following minimum standards in unincorporated areas:

– Lots served by public sanitary sewers must have a minimum average width of 65 feet and a minimum area of 10,000 square feet. Lots with a septic system must have a minimum average width of 100 feet and a minimum area of 20,000 square feet to ensure adequate separation of water wells from septic drainfields and adequate wastewater treatment in varying soils.

– All buildings and structures, except piers, boat hoists, and boathouses, must be set back 75 feet from the ordinary high water mark. If an existing pattern of development exists, counties may allow lesser setbacks. Setbacks create visual buffers, protect structures from flooding, provide space for land to filter and slow runoff, and can provide space for animals and plants that thrive in the near-shore area.

– Buildings and other structures that predate the adoption of shoreland zoning ordinances and do not meet the standards found in those ordinances are considered "nonconforming structures." The county may prohibit the alteration, addition or repair of such a structure if the cost of the alteration, addition, or repair over the life of the structure exceeds half of the equalized assessed value of the structure.

– Clear-cutting trees and shrubbery is prohibited within 35 feet of the ordinary high water mark except for one 30-foot corridor in any 100 feet of frontage to provide views of the water and access to the water's edge. The regulation also aims to protect shoreland vegetation and the wildlife habitat it offers.