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Legislative meddling could lead to developments that degrade our waters, economy

John Imes is executive director of the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative. For more information, visit

John Imes is executive director of the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative. For more information, visit

Wisconsin’s lakes and shorelands are the precious jewels of our state and a great driver of our thriving tourism industry.

Continued efforts by Republicans in the Legislature to roll back and limit local control and responsible management of our lakes and shorelands will upset the balance we need between a sound environment and a thriving economy.

GOP-sponsored bills passed in the Assembly will increase development in shoreland areas, including dredging of near-shore areas that are critical for fish and wildlife habitat, while reducing local control and the state Department of Natural Resource’s oversight of water quality issues. The legislation builds on the wholesale changes to shoreland zoning that were included in the state budget and stripped local decision-makers of their ability to adopt stricter regulations to protect our waters.

The bills also undermine the public’s legal right to use navigable waters, which are protected by the state Constitution’s public trust doctrine. Instead of continuing to erode Wisconsin’s traditions and common-sense policies in favor of irresponsible developers and out-of-state property owners, policymakers should be looking at better ways to protect our waters while supporting the state’s economy. For example:

We can use science and local control to expand our efforts to classify lakes and shorelands according to their susceptibility to harm caused by development. Run-off from construction sites causes soil erosion and can contain contaminants that are harmful to waterways.

Development close to lakes, rivers and streams should require higher standards, not lower ones, plus increased setbacks, zero-runoff design, and advanced steps to conserve landscape with the use of storm water-management practices.

Developers, realtors, builders and property owners who practice superior conservation efforts should be certified and celebrated as good stewards of the land. Cluster developments, conservation easements, green infrastructure, open space and mitigation all can be used to improve our shorelands.

Local governments should be able to administer rigorous erosion-control and storm water regulations while recognizing good actors and rewarding responsible development through economic incentives, tax breaks and expedited review.

We should support the development of local lake associations and the numerous agencies and organizations, scientific experts, landscape designers and citizen volunteers who educate property owners on what environmentally responsible development looks like and how to do it. For example, some years ago the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative organized Shoreland Development panel discussions and roundtables that brought together conservationists, developers, lake associations and local, county and state government officials, to find ways to balance shoreland development with environmental protection.

The ideas, suggestions and case studies led to an Owning Waterfront Property Checklist that was distributed to many thousands of property owners throughout the state. More recently, a Clean Clear Waters Checklist was developed to highlight the important role that builders and developers can play in improving our lakes by adopting the best practices for erosion control, landscape conservation and storm water management.

We can have private property rights and clean, clear waters through responsible development, rigorous standards and local control that respect Wisconsin’s tradition of environmental stewardship. With more than 200 conservation, hunting, fishing and environmental groups opposed to these bills, policymakers should take a step back and embrace a more collaborative, practical and effective way forward.

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