June 16, 2009Client Alert

Department of Natural Resources Announces Final Draft of Revised Shoreland Protection Rules; First Comprehensive Revision in 40 Years

On June 10, 2009, the Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”) released the final version of a comprehensive revision to Wisconsin’s shoreland development standards, which were initially implemented in the 1960s. At the time, Wisconsin was a leader in the move to protect shoreland areas critical for clean water, habitat and natural scenic beauty. Since then, Wisconsin has seen a tremendous increase in the amount of shoreland development while the shoreland regulations have remained virtually unchanged.

The existing shoreland development standards address minimum lot sizes, setbacks for structures from the water, shoreland vegetation management and other shoreland related activities. The revisions are intended to better protect water quality and habitat, provide more flexibility for property owners and establish standards that are easier to apply. Adoption of the revisions, which have been in various stages of discussion for nearly a decade, will be considered by the Natural Resources Board on June 24, 2009.

Shorelands are defined as all land within 1,000 feet of a lake, pond or flowage and all land within 300 feet of a river or stream. Wisconsin’s system of shoreland regulation, which applies only to unincorporated areas of the state (cities and villages have separate statutory authority to regulate development within the shoreland) is set forth in chapter NR 115 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code. Counties are required to adopt shoreland zoning ordinances which meet or exceed the standards contained in NR 115. Following are some of the key elements of the proposed revisions:

  • Many familiar standards are unchanged, including the 75 foot setback and the 10,000 and 20,000 square foot lot sizes for sewered and unsewered lots, respectively.

  • Existing homeowners would not be affected until they remodel their home or make a major change in how they manage their property, like clear cutting trees, mowing new areas or paving over areas.

  • For new building, reconstruction or expansion, property owners will need to either save some space for fish and wildlife habitat and runoff absorption - or restore habitat or runoff absorption - in proportion to the project.

  • Legal nonconforming structures, those structures that do not conform to current standards but which predate local adoption of the standards, can more easily be maintained and repaired. The proposal:

    • Eliminates dollar limits (the “50% rule”) on the maintenance and repair of legal nonconforming structures,
    • Allows some expansion of buildings at least 35 feet from the water if the owner takes offsetting steps like restoring native plants or taking measures to reduce runoff, and
    • Sets height restrictions for those portions of buildings within the first 75 feet of the water's edge.

  • Buildings, driveways or other impervious surfaces are limited to 30 percent of the lot to reduce runoff and protect water quality in lakes and streams.
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