Disputes between the state and builders over construction projects near wetlands have prompted a lawmaker’s attempt to force better communication between the sides.
State Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, has introduced a bill requiring the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources provide information about wetlands to landowners, builders and local governments that issue building permits. The bill would establish a $50 fee a landowner can pay for a DNR wetlands map of the property and a $300 fee for a DNR employee to visit a property and mark off wetlands.
“The idea here is making the DNR a little easier to live with,” Bies said. “We want to prevent a situation where an individual went to local town and county governments, got building permits and then had to stop construction because the DNR then said, ‘Hey, you can’t build here.’”
Kewaunee resident Mike Rodrian can relate. The DNR in 2005 told him to stop construction of a storage shed on his property because he was building on wetlands.
“I got all the permits to do it from the town and county and had already spent over $40,000 building it,” Rodrian said. “I had the concrete poured, the walls up and the trusses on, and then the DNR came in and said I had to stop and basically tear it down.”
Rodrian refused, which prompted a state lawsuit the Wisconsin Department of Justice ultimately dropped. The state dropped the case, Rodrian said, because a DNR representative had taken pictures of his property before and during construction without telling him to stop before work began.
Before the state dismissed the case, Rodrian said, the DNR threatened as much as a $5,000 fine for every day he did not tear down the shed. Landowners and builders need protection from such fines, he said.
Kevin Slottke, a registered land surveyor with Milwaukee-based The Sigma Group, said commercial and residential subdivision developers run into the same issues.
“If people don’t know they have wetlands on their property,” he said, “they’re not going to know they need to get the proper information about it.”
Cherie Hagen, the DNR’s wetlands team leader, said she does not know how often the department stops construction or design work because of wetlands interference.
“But it is a common occurrence,” she said. “Are there still instances where people begin projects or start planning and have to stop? I’m sure.”
But Hagen said those instances have declined since last year when the department placed wetland identification tools, including maps, on its Web site.
But Bies said the information still is not getting to the people who need it.
“We’re just trying to get people that heads-up,” he said of his bill.
The DNR supports working with property owners and builders, Hagen said, but the $300 fee for site visits might not be enough.
“Given the state budget and hiring freezes that are in place,” she said, “we’re concerned we’re not going to be able to provide the staff to meet the potential demand.”
The DNR is finalizing an analysis, which should be complete next week, detailing how many people, and at what expense, would be needed to perform several hundred site visits per year. Hagen said Michigan has a similar program that led to about 600 visits in one year.
“We want to help people do their due diligence,” she said. “And this bill will help if we have the right funding for it.”