Environmental Protection

Wisconsin Will Modernize Shoreland Protection Rules

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Matt Frank, the River Alliance of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Association of Lakes, the Wisconsin Realtors Association, and the Wisconsin Builders Association have agreed to modernize the state’s shoreland protection rules, increasing flexibility for property owners to manage their land while improving environmental protections for lakes and streams.

The proposal, which will be taken up at the June 24 Natural Resources Board meeting in New Richmond, is the first major statewide shoreland protection revision in over 40 years.

The proposed changes accomplish three important goals:

  • More flexibility for shoreland property owners to make improvements to their homes, while reducing the environmental impact of shoreland structures and hard surfaces.
  • Enhanced protections to preserve water quality, habitat, and scenic beauty.
  • Streamlining the process to administer the rules.

“This proposal achieves a solid balance between the public interest in protecting Wisconsin’s beautiful lakes, rivers and streams, and the rights of private shoreland owners to enjoy their property,” Frank said. “Modernizing these rules ensures that as Wisconsin grows and develops, we are protecting our most precious natural resources so fundamental to our economy, recreation and our quality of life. This proposal reflects the improvements in our understanding as to what is most effective in protecting our waterways from stormwater run-off, improving both water quality and promoting healthy wildlife and fisheries habitat.”

Wisconsin’s shoreland protection rules were first created in 1968. They largely apply to unincorporated areas -- those outside city and village boundaries. Under the proposal, basic provisions of the shoreland protection rules would remain unchanged, including the 75-foot setback from the shoreline for new structures and minimum lot sizes of 20,000 square feet (10,000 square feet for sub-standard lots). The new rule would implement a 35-foot limit on the height of shoreland structures.

“We know so much more about how development affects our lakes and rivers than when the Shoreland Zoning rule was approved back in the 1960s,” said Lori Grant of the Wisconsin River Alliance. “The new rule responds to years of research across the country and addresses the core issues head-on: limiting hard surfaces that produce runoff and maintaining natural vegetation on the shoreline.”

Under the new rules, shoreland owners with an existing non-conforming residence located between 35 feet and 75 feet of the shoreline would have greater flexibility to make home improvements. Spending limits for repairs to existing homes are removed. It will no longer be necessary to request a variance from the county if the homeowner is spending more than 50 percent of the value of the property.

However, a property owner expanding the physical footprint of a non-conforming structure will be required to offset the environmental impact of the expansion by choosing from a number of options. Examples include reducing the amount of mowing next to the water, installing rain gardens to absorb storm runoff, or re-planting native vegetation near the shoreline. Non-conforming structures may not be expanded toward the water but may be expanded on the other three sides, as long as impacts are offset.

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