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Waterfront bill collides with shore-land updates

Paul Snyder
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A state lawmaker’s push to give waterfront towns more development leeway is threatening to make revised Wisconsin shore-land zoning rules tougher to enforce.

“Any time that you’re exempting or attempting to exempt certain areas from state rules, that’s always concerning,” said Greg Breese, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ shore-land program manager. “Because then you have to start looking at each individual town, and you see there are as many comparable pieces as there are differences.”

Still, state Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, said townships should not suffer if they are near lakes or rivers. He has introduced a bill that would protect waterfront towns in which most buildings are constructed before 1990 by exempting those towns from what could be more stringent shore-land zoning rules.

The bill protections would go into effect if the state enacts tougher rules.

But the ways in which the rules would be updated are unclear. The DNR last month gave the Legislature a draft that would limit development to 30 percent on an impervious surface, which is land that forces water runoff, in a town’s shore-land zone. The draft also would establish larger setback distances for development — 300 feet from a river’s high-water mark and 1,000 feet from a lake’s.

Some local leaders, including Minocqua Town Chairman Joe Handrick, argued those restrictions would hamstring new development in areas such as downtown Minocqua, which is nearly surrounded by a lake.

The state Assembly this month returned the draft to the DNR for modifications. Breese said the DNR agreed to revise the rules, but he is uncertain what lawmakers want changed.

State Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, and chairman of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, did not return calls for comment before deadline Monday.

Holperin said his bill would not be part of any changes to the DNR draft because his bill applies only to limited areas in the statewide rule.

“I’ve not spoken to a lot of the towns I think could be affected by the changes, but from appearance on a topographical standpoint, areas like Woodruff or Elcho could be affected,” he said. “They have a lot of those small downtown lots on impervious surface.”

Elcho might be affected by the DNR updates, said Town Chairman Richard Olsen, but developers are not swamping the town with proposals.

“You’ll always get a few permits for redoing a house or something,” he said. “But generally, we’re not seeing a lot of development at all. There’s nothing going on in this downtown right now.”

Still, Rick Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, said new house construction could be stymied by the rule updates, so Holperin’s bill creates a cushion for whatever development a town does experience.

“If it becomes too difficult to develop within that 1,000-foot setback,” he said, “then people are just going to go outside that distance where the rules don’t apply.”

The north woods area doesn’t need that kind of sprawl, Holperin said, but he conceded creating exemptions for some towns and not others could spark town battles over exemptions.

“There’s going to be no bill that offers the perfect situation,” he said. “Some people will be upset by this.

Some people will think they should be covered, too. But I think this addresses 80 to 90 percent of the situations we need to get at.”

But Breese said exemptions would make enforcing rules more difficult.

“There is not a magic elixir that you can drink and make everything even in this state,” he said. “It’s like exempting the 65 mph speed limit between Madison and Milwaukee, because people tend to go 75. You do that, and a lot of people will be arguing whether that’s fair.”

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