Legal standards for waterfront property
Making sure that shoreland property conforms to legal standards is important to ensure the value of the investment as well as the health of the waterway. Non-compliance can result in investigation and enforcement of laws by state and county officials.
All waterfront property in Wisconsin is subject to extensive regulation as dictated by Chapter 30 of the state statutes as well as local laws developed in each county. Thankfully, help can be found at two local agencies, Oneida County Zoning and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources office, both located in Rhinelander.
Below the OHWM (ordinary high water mark), the state DNR has authority, since the state is required to hold in trust for the benefit of all citizens the beds underlying natural navigable lakes. Wendy Henniges is the water management specialist charged with overseeing waterways in Oneida, Forest, Langlade and Florence counties.
“The job of the DNR water regulation programs is to protect public rights and interest in our waterways, and to allow projects that will not cause harm,” says Wendy. “Water regulation means the protection of your water rights.”
“Guidelines are set for reasonable use and to accommodate the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act),” she adds. “If the regulations are followed, a permit isn’t necessary. Limits are very generous. If folks are interested in pursuing a permit for a pier that exceeds the exemption standards, I suggest they contact me to discuss the permit process in advance.”
A Pier Planner document is available through the DNR that spells out rules pertaining to pier placing, length, width and construction, as well as boathouses, mooring buoys and swim rafts. “There are specific guidelines for all structures,” says Wendy. “The main purpose is to minimize environmental impact and make sure that nothing is interfering with the rights of others. In areas where boats need to go through a channel or into a bay, you need to make sure you’re allowing enough space for that navigation.”
Wendy also can help property owners with plans for erosion control and vegetation, which is vital for the health of the lake or river ecosystem. “We’ve found that 80 percent of animal species that live in or near the water utilize the littoral or near-shore, shallow-water zone at some point in their life cycle,” she says. “We have a great online decision matrix that answers questions, offers ideas and includes permit applications.”
When humans disturb shorelines, it has an incredible impact, according to Wendy. “The more natural we can keep the shoreline, the better it will be,” she says. “The problem comes when we bring along our suburban or urban practices. Being neat and tidy is usually not beneficial to wildlife. We have to strike that balance between enjoyment of the resource and good stewardship.”
To that end, Wendy is excited about the new Healthy Lakes program, which offers help in the form of information and grant money for projects. “This program is a great incentive for good stewardship,” she says. “From simple things like restoring native vegetation to establishing tree drops that create woody habitat in the water, we can help.”
What happens above the OHWM can be equally important, but that is the jurisdiction of the county government. Oneida County zoning director Karl Jennrich and assistant director Pete Wegner are charged with aiding the county board zoning committee in spelling out the details governing waterfront property.
They’ve had their hands full lately, trying to re-write the county shoreland ordinance to come into line with state regulations. “Updates mostly pertain to changes coming for impervious surface rules and non-conforming structures,” says Karl. “We are drafting the new language, but the committee will make the final decisions.”
Pete explains that there are also minor changes up for discussion. “We’re looking at storm water runoff/soil disturbance, permit requirements, measuring impervious surfaces, reduced setbacks for the placement of principal structures through averaging and on shallow lots,” he says.
“What people have now, they usually can keep. We’re mostly concerned with new development and expansion to structures on existing lots or parcels. Any changes to existing impervious surfaces within 300 feet of the OHWM or structures within 75 feet of the OHWM will need to be reviewed by staff.”
Within these areas, everything comes under scrutiny, from buildings to walkways. Anything that doesn’t allow rain to pass through into the ground is considered impervious. Even simple things like gravel pathways, dog runs and sidewalks are considered impervious, according to the zoning officials.
“Per NR115, the maximum percentage of impervious surface within 300 feet of a water body is 15 percent or 30 percent with mitigation,” Pete explains. “Impervious surfaces that do not drain directly to a water body or precipitation that falls on an impervious surface that is directed to a treatment system is not included or is not considered as an impervious surface.”
The purpose of the restriction of impervious surfaces is to protect water quality and fish and wildlife habitat. But locally, says Karl, efforts to divert run-off of this storm water away from lakes have resulted in many incidents of problems between neighbors.
“With big houses on small lakefront lots, we’re seeing water running on to adjoining property,” he says. “We get calls complaining about the problem, but now we’re not able to do much about it.”
Language being considered by the zoning committee will require all storm water to be contained within the property boundaries or diverted onto public roadways. “If the ordinance passes,” says Pete, “we’ll be able to enforce it.”
These and other changes to the county shoreland zoning regulations will be discussed at three different public hearings held around the county in the next several months.
More information can be found through the Oneida County website (oneida.wi.gov) or zoning office.
Both the DNR and county zoning offices encourage not only questions from property owners, but questions and concerns about possible violations citizens may witness. Both agencies are restricted in the number of personnel they have available for monitoring Northwoods shorelands, but welcome input from the public.
Oneida County zoning can be reached at (715) 369-6130. Wendy Henniges can be reached at (715) 365-8960. To report a suspected violation, call (800) TIP-WDNR (800-847-9367).
Sue Schneider lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond and Northwoods Commerce magazines.