ACTION ALERT – Help Restore Shoreland Zoning

Below is Wisconsin Lakes’ update on what’s happening in the State to fix the shoreland zoning changes enacted with the Act 55 budget approval. Here is a link to view this Alert in a browser.

The time to restore county local control of shoreland zoning protections is now.
With the passage of the 2015-17 state budget (Act 55), the manner in which counties can regulate shoreland zoning changed dramatically. For over four and half decades, Wisconsin law allowed counties to enact shoreland zoning ordinances stricter than the minimum standards set by the Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR).Changes slipped into the budget bill well after the period for public comment had ended changed all that. Now, Wisconsin counties cannot:

  • Enact or enforce shoreland zoning provisions stricter than the state standards,
  • Require approval, fees, or mitigation for many aspects of repairing, replacing, or reconstructing non-conforming structures close to the water, or
  • Regulate lighting or require placement or expansion of buffers, among other changes.

Despite a heroic effort by Wisconsin Lakes and many of our lake organization members and partners, and despite hundreds of calls and conversations with lawmakers and a joint letter signed by over sixty lake organizations calling for the removal or veto of the changes from the budget, the legislature passed, and Governor Walker signed, those changes into law.

But there is still a chance to prevent the negative impacts to water quality, property values, and our lake economy that are sure to come. Join us in the effort to restore county local control over shoreland zoning and the repeal of the Act 55 changes. 

The time is now – and we can restore the time-tested, effective and fair system of shoreland zoning we’ve enjoyed in Wisconsin for so long. 


Why care about shoreland zoning?
Shoreland zoning protects water quality, which in turn protects property values and the local lake economy and culture.

Shoreland zoning balances waterfront development with protecting the water quality of the lake. As lakeshores are developed and vegetation is removed, more and more water runs off houses and driveways, and, if unimpeded, straight to the lake. All the pollutants and nutrients contained in that runoff inevitably leads to lower water quality, which in turn harms the plants and animals living in the lake. Smart shoreland zoning seeks to limit the amount of runoff reaching the lake, through the use of natural plantings, rain gardens, limitations on hard surfaces that run toward the lake, and more.

But the benefit of smart shoreland development isn’t just to the critters in the lake. Studies from Minnesota and Maine have shown that higher water quality boosts property values, and that shoreland zoning improves water quality. Those higher property values in turn benefit the local economy and preserve the lifestyle that has grown up around the lake.

This is why so many lakeshore property owners support shoreland zoning and called for the rejection of the Act 55 changes to Wisconsin’s shoreland zoning law.


Why care about these changes to shoreland zoning law?
Not all lakes are the same, and counties deserve the local control to determine whether their lakes need stronger protection than in other parts of the state.

The major changes to the shoreland zoning law in Act 55 – eliminating county local control to be stricter than the state minimum standards and reducing oversight on non-conforming structures – prevent local property owners and citizens of that county from determining for themselves what, if any, protections beyond the state minimums are needed to protect their lake. 

For instance, in some southern and many northern counties such as Vilas County, ordinance provisions prohibiting a shoreland lot width smaller than 400′ of frontage are now only enforceable to the minimum standard lot width of 100′. That means a potential increase of 2-3 times the properties on a single lake!

Or, take the example of Jefferson County in southern Wisconsin, which features a provision in its shoreland zoning ordinance requiring establishment of vegetative buffers along the shoreline – an effective tool to slow down runoff and let it seep into the ground before it hits the lake – that works well in more developed, urbanized lake settings. That provision is not enforceable under Act 55.

Though the reasons for wanting more control differ from county to county and region to region, the common denominator always comes back to the need for local control.

Even for counties that do not go beyond the minimum standards currently, the changes of Act 55 still take away any future choice to exert local control, and the weakened ability of oversight on non-conforming structures reduces those minimum standards in the first place.

The Act 55 changes have been expressed by proponents to be in defense of property rights. But many waterfront property owners of all political stripes have expressed that taking away local control to decide how best to protect their own property values, even if that means giving away a little of what they can do on their own property, is in itself a taking of property rights.


Who’s doing what on this issue?
From legislators to citizens, counties to the DNR, the Act 55 changes are being highly scrutinized

From the moment the changes were introduced as part of a budget motion before the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, Wisconsin Lakes was working to stop the proposal, rallying lake organizations across the state to voice their opposition to their legislators. Despite this effort, and despite some legislators’ chagrin at voting for the changes, they did go through as part of the budget. While we’ve been continuing to work on this issue, other activity has been going on as well:

  • DNR: To help counties understand how to uniformly implement a difficult change in law, DNR is in the process of developing guidance to understand what they can and cannot do. That guidance is expected to be released at any time.
  • Counties: Many county boards or zoning committees passed resolutions against the changes, especially in regards to the loss of local control.
  • Citizens: Over sixty lake organizations from across the state registered their opposition to the changes by signing onto a Wisconsin Lakes’ sponsored letter delivered to legislators prior to the budget vote. More local and countywide groups have passed resolutions calling for the repeal of the Act 55 changes since the budget was signed. And one group, Plum Lake Association, is leading its own effort to introduce legislation it hopes will garner Republican support (Wisconsin Lakes is following this effort closely, and will provide more information as the parties involved release their overall strategy in the coming days).


What can I, or my lake organization, do now?
Even without introduced legislation to support, you and your group can still take action right now.

Even without an introduced legislative proposal to ask legislators to support as of this writing, individuals and lake organizations can still do much to help lay the groundwork for when it is. With the legislature only scheduled to be on the floor this fall from October 20-November 5, getting legislation passed before the new year will be challenging, but not impossible. To help out now, you can:

  • Legislators: Contact your legislators and let them know this is an issue to which they need to pay attention. Even if you have supportive representatives, it’s important that they know this issue is one they should focus on.
  • Media: The recent fundraising push by the folks on Plum Lake garnered quite a bit of media coverage – from local papers to Wisconsin Public Radio – which indicates this is a story the media finds newsworthy. There is always a danger of too much exposure on a story too soon, but letting your local media know this is an issue to watch can help keep it on their radar. 
  • Casual lake users and the public-at-large: Shoreland zoning is probably not an issue to which the general public pays much attention. But many groups, including sportsmen, boaters, and families who enjoy a public beach, would likely be interested to know about the peril to their treasured waters. And letting everyone know that even waterfront property owners who feel the impact of the zoning regulations are against the changes is a powerful message. Get the message out through letters to the editor, presentations at local clubs like the Rotary, or even through one on one conversations with “off water” neighbors.



What’s the message?

The best message to deliver is a personal one – why is restoring shoreland zoning to pre-Act 55 law important to you? How does shoreland zoning benefit you or your lake organization?

Here are some other ideas for points to include in your conversations:

  • Not all lakes in all parts of the state are the same, and counties deserve the “local control” to go beyond the state standards in their shoreland zoning ordinances if they see fit.
  • The shoreland zoning regimen of county local control to go beyond the state’s reasonable minimum standards has effective and fairly balance lake health with development for over four decades.
  • The state’s standards for shoreland zoning were designed to be minimums – it says so right in the purpose – and won’t adequately protect all lakes in the state.
  • Shoreland zoning keeps property values up by keeping water quality high.
  • Ask yourself – what is the value of high quality lake to you and your family?
  • Changes to decades old law should be made in the light of day with opportunity for public comment – not shoved through a budget process at the last minute.

Watch our shoreland zoning restoration pages on as we add to this list!


For more information..

Wisconsin Lakes is dedicated to full coverage of this issue as the legislative campaign unfolds. Follow our efforts through our eLake and Lake Policy Report newsletters, our Facebook and Twitter pages, and through our Shoreland Zoning Restoration pages being developed right now on!