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Shore-land rules put towns on edge

Paul Snyder
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A state shore-land zoning update targeting towns could wash developments out of small, rural areas and into the nearest cities.

“If there’s a lot there that a business is looking to develop or expand, well, 30 percent is like a hot dog cart,” said Joe Handrick, Minocqua town chairman.

But 30 percent is the maximum amount open to development on an impervious surface, which is land that forces water runoff, in a town’s shore-land zone, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ proposed update to the rules. The changes to the 40-year-old rules would apply only to unincorporated areas and would be the first statewide standards governing shore-land zones. Counties now set the guidelines.

“If it’s about water quality, then you’ve got to talk about cities and villages,” Handrick said.

If the rule fails to apply to everyone, he said, it will put towns such as Minocqua, where buildings are tightly packed and the downtown area is essentially an island in the lake, at a disadvantage.

“So if businesses are looking to expand or develop in Minocqua and see they don’t have to worry about these issues up in the city of Eagle River,” Handrick said, “well, what do you think they’ll do?”

Yet if the same standards were applied to incorporated areas, projects such as the Milwaukee Riverwalk would not exist, said Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

“These are rules for rural and residential areas,” he said. “It’s not practical to apply them to cities and villages.”

Tom Larson, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Wisconsin Realtors Association, agreed, saying it would be equally unfair to cities and villages if they were lumped in with unincorporated areas. The updates also apply to navigable waterways, he said, which could include creeks and drainage areas.

“You apply these rules to cities and soon you’re going to have sprawl,” Larson said, “because you’re going to run out of places to develop really quickly.”

But lawmakers representing northern Wisconsin communities still are concerned about rules that govern specific communities. State Rep. Dan Meyer, R-Eagle River, testified at a Wednesday hearing of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources that it is difficult for people to earn their livings year-round in the region.

Any rule that would further hinder development, he said, would only make it harder.

State Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, is seeking a compromise through a proposed rule amendment that would let counties offer shore-land zoning exemptions to small downtown waterfront areas if they have small businesses, paved streets, and sewer and water service.

The state’s shore-land development rules need to be updated, Holperin said, but putting an unfair burden on towns is not the way to go.

“You look around Madison, and people can build around the lakes here however they want,” he said.

“Everyone should have to play by the same rules.”

Compromise might be the best choice, Handrick said, because it is unlikely the state Legislature would support across-the-board development rules.

“There just isn’t the political will to do that,” he said.

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