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Uncertainty drives debate over shore land exemptions

By Paul Snyder

Uncertainty is driving both sides of a debate over giving towns exemptions from state shore land rules.

Opponents of a bill that would give the exemptions say more than 200 communities could be affected by the change. Supporters argue the number is closer to one.

Neither side has data to back up its claims.

State Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, said questions have been raised about his bill, tentatively scheduled for a vote Wednesday to send it out of committee to the Senate.

“I don’t know that there is support yet,” he said. “I’d like to give my colleagues the opportunity to offer amendments and check around with committee members in the next few days.”

Holperin’s bill would protect any unincorporated area in which most buildings are constructed before 1990 by exempting those towns from the state’s recently updated shore land rules.

The bill was introduced in September after Minocqua’s town chairman raised concerns about updates to the state’s shore land zoning laws, which were subsequently approved in December.

The town’s business area is mostly surrounded by water and the updated rules set 30 percent as the maximum amount of developable land on an impervious surface, which is land that forces water runoff.

Joe Handrick, Minocqua’s town chairman, has said that’s about enough space to build a hot dog cart.

The bill might affect some other towns, but it’s unlikely to spark statewide changes, said Tom Larson, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

“It’s a tough balance to strike for small communities, when you’ve got shore land rules kind of discouraging growth and smart-growth laws doing just the opposite,” he said. “Still, this bill seems tailor-made for Minocqua.”

But the fact that Holperin and others are uncertain how far the bill will reach alarms environmental groups such as the River Alliance of Wisconsin.

“I understand people looking at Minocqua and saying it’s unfair for new development to comply with these rules when others didn’t,” said Denny Caneff, the group’s executive director. “But this is bigger than Minocqua. There are hundreds of those types of communities throughout the state.”

Caneff said more than 200 communities could be exempted from the rules under Holperin’s bill. He also conceded that, like Holperin, he does not have numbers to support his claim.

Both the River Alliance and Clean Wisconsin Inc. registered in opposition to the bill at a public hearing last week. Holperin said he does not believe any changes he could make to the bill would win either group’s support.

But consensus from the rest of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Tourism, Forestry and Natural Resources might be easier to obtain.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said it would help to have a count of how many towns would be affected by the bill, but even without that, he will support the bill. He said environmental opposition is to be expected, but it doesn’t change his mind.

“There are, unfortunately, some groups that are uncomfortable with the constitution’s principle that you should be able to do what you want with your property,” Grothman said.

If environmental groups are concerned, Larson said they could try pushing for additions to the bill, such as requiring shrubs or other natural buffers be placed between new developments and bodies of water.

But Caneff said it seemed cumbersome to start writing new rules within a month of the state approving its own.

“Our waters are so challenged and compromised as it is,” he said, “let’s just get on with protecting them.”

Caneff said it would help the group’s effort against Holperin’s bill if it had better numbers, though.

“Maybe it’s just a matter of us pulling out some highway maps and looking at the areas with creeks,” he said. “It would help if somebody said ‘There really aren’t a lot of places that would be affected.’”

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