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Intro || Zoning 101 || Catching Up With the Zoning Approval Process || Public Participation || Shoreland Zoning

Wisconsin Shoreland Zoning and Shoreland Wetlands

Wisconsin law requires counties, cities and villages to regulate construction activities within the designated "shoreland zone." The shoreland zone includes the area 1,000í from a lake-edge and the greater of 300í from a river-edge or to the landward side of the floodplain (see diagram). Local governments must adopt and administer shoreland zoning ordinances that meet or exceed minimum state standards. These standards include:

1. Design standards such as minimum lot sizes, building set-back requirements and restrictions on the removal of vegetation adjacent to lakes and rivers.

2. Shoreland wetland standards including prescriptions for allowed, prohibited, and conditional (i.e., needs a special permit) uses for designated wetlands within the shoreland-wetland zoning district.

Shoreland zone as defined by minimum state standards.
Counties and towns may adopt more stringent standards than these minimum requirements.

Minimum shoreland wetland standards:
At a minimum, shoreland wetland standards apply to all wetlands within the shoreland zone that are greater than 5 acres in size and appear on a Wisconsin Wetland Inventory map. However, some counties approve more stringent shoreland wetlands standards. Common variations include applying shoreland wetland standards to all mapped wetlands that are 2 acres or greater or to all wetlands within the shoreland zone regardless of size or the presence of the wetland on a map.

Visit your county website or contact your county Zoning Administrator for more information about your countyís shoreland zoning ordinance. Keep in mind that city and village ordinances may differ from those that apply county-wide, however all shoreland zoning ordinances must comply with minimum state standards.

Once you know which wetlands receive protection under county, city or village shoreland zoning ordinances, youíll also need to understand what types of uses and activities are allowed, prohibited, or allowed with a permit, within designated shoreland wetlands.

Allowed uses must generally be carried out without filling, flooding, draining, ditching, tiling, or excavating, however some exceptions apply. Uses allowed with a permit may be subject to specific conditions and cannot be located in a wetland if there is an upland alternative. Filling, excavating, ditching, or draining will not be allowed for permitted uses unless the wetland alteration is necessary for construction and done in a way that minimizes wetland impacts. All other uses are considered prohibited uses and cannot be approved unless the land is rezoned as something other than shoreland wetland.

> Click here for a WDNR presentation describing allowed, prohibited or conditional (permit required) uses in Wisconsin shoreland wetlands.

Rezoning shoreland wetlands:
As mentioned above, approval of projects that propose prohibited uses in shoreland wetlands requires that the land be rezoned. At a minimum, the rezoning process includes approval by one or more county committees, the county board, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and will include at least one hearing before the County board. Only a shoreland wetland so degraded as to lack all of the functional values listed below could be eligible for rezoning.

Shoreland wetlands cannot be rezoned if the proposed rezoning may result in a significant adverse impact to any of the following wetland functions:

  • Storm and flood water storage
  • Maintenance of dry season stream flow or groundwater recharge to, discharge from, or flow through a wetland
  • Filtering of sediments, nutrients or contaminants
  • Shoreline protection against erosion
  • Fish and wildlife habitat
  • Areas of special natural resource interest as defined by Wisconsin Administrative Code in NR 103.04

DNRís involvement with shoreland zoning and permit decisions:
Though Wisconsin counties, cities and villages administer Wisconsinís shoreland zoning program, the state retains oversight authority to ensure that the adoption and administration of local shoreland zoning ordinances comply with minimum state standards.

For example, state law provides the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) the authority to adopt a shoreland zoning ordinance for counties, cities and villages that either fail to adopt their own ordinance, or adopt an ordinance that fails to meet state standards.

WDNR also conducts a consistency review on conditional use, variance and appeal decisions made under county shoreland zoning ordinances and can appeal these decisions before the county board or request judicial review of county actions. Though WDNR does not have the express authority to routinely conduct consistency reviews on individual shoreland zoning decisions made by cities and villages, they do retain authority to review the entire local program to ensure that implementation and enforcement of city and village zoning ordinances meet minimum state standards. State law also allows WDNR to initiate enforcement actions if it finds that a city or village has not adequately implemented or enforced its local zoning ordinance.

> Click here for contact information for your countyís zoning office and the WDNR Shoreland Zoning contact in your area.

Public Participation:
Tracking and providing input on local shoreland zoning decisions calls for the same set of skills and commitment as tracking other local land use decisions, but citizen advocates may find it easier to influence project outcomes in the shoreland zone for the following reasons.

  1. People care about the quality of local lakes and rivers and the character of the shoreline. Many of your neighbors will share your concerns about development in the shoreland zone and may be willing to speak up on behalf of wetland protection.
  2. State minimum standards, and the WDNRís obligation to monitor implementation of local shoreland zoning ordinances for compliance with these standards, provides important checks and balances into the decision-making process. It also provides you with another place to turn if you believe your local governmentís decisions violate the local shoreland zoning ordinance. Click here to contact your local WDNR Shoreland Zoning Specialist.

For More Information:

Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 115 Wisconsinís Shoreland Zoning Program outlines minimum shoreland zoning standards for Wisconsin counties.

Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 117 Wisconsinís City and Village Shoreland Wetland Protection Program outlines minimum shoreland zoning standards for Wisconsin cities and villages.

WDNRís Shoreland Management website

Shoreland Zoning Publications

Links to websites offered by Wisconsin Cities, Villages and Towns can be found through the following sites:

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If you find these pages useful and would like to help expand Wisconsin Wetlands Associationís
efforts to provide community-based wetland protection assistance, please click here.