Skip to main content

Wisconsin’s Shoreland Management Program

Safeguarding our shorelands

Shoreland zoning has the goal of protecting water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and natural beauty. To accomplish these goals, the statewide minimum standards for shoreland zoning ordinances primarily do two things:

Shoreland buffers help protect water quality
Vegetated buffer.
  • control the intensity of development around water; and
  • create a buffer around water.

A buffer is a vegetated strip of land that protects water from the impacts of nearby development, provides wildlife habitat and screens buildings when viewing from the water.

If properly designed and maintained, a buffer can help protect shorelands and adjacent lakes and rivers from physical, chemical, hydrological and visual impacts.

A partnership between state and local government

Wisconsin's Shoreland Management Program is a partnership between state and local governments. Local communities adopt zoning ordinances to guide development near navigable lakes and rivers, in compliance with statewide minimum development standards. These standards seek to create a balance between private rights and public interests.

Shoreland zoning jurisdiction

Shoreland zoning rules apply to unincorporated land that is:

  • within 1,000 feet of a navigable lake, flowage, or pond; or
  • within 300 feet of a navigable stream, or the landward side of a floodplain, whichever is greater.

In this figure, the shaded areas are where shoreland zoning rules apply.

example of shoreland zoning
Examples of Shoreland Zoning

Shoreland zoning minimum standards

Wisconsin´s Shoreland Management Program established statewide minimum standards for shoreland development. Counties are required to adopt and administer shoreland zoning ordinances that meet or exceed these minimum requirements. The statewide minimum standards have been revised and may be found in Chapter NR 115 [exit DNR], Wis. Admin. Code. A brief summary of those provisions are provided below. Be sure to check with the specific county in which you are interested in finding out about their development standards. Many counties have adopted additional requirements that are not listed below.

1. Lot size

In summary, s. NR115.05(3)(a), Wis. Admin. Code, provides:

  • Sewered lots must have a minimum average width of 65 feet and a minimum area of 10,000 square feet.
  • Unsewered lots (i.e., lots not served by a public sanitary sewer) must have a minimum average width of 100 feet and a minimum area of 20,000 square feet.

2. Buffer strip

In summary, s. NR115.05(3)(c), Wis. Admin. Code, provides:

  • Clear-cutting of trees and shrubs is not allowed in the strip of land from the ordinary high water mark to 35 feet inland unless you are performing the following:
    • Routine maintenance of vegetation.
    • Removal of trees and shrubs to create an access or viewing corridor that may not exceed 30 percent of the shoreline frontage or 200 feet.
    • Removal of trees and shrubs on a parcel of at least 10 acres, consistent with "generally accepted forestry management practices."
    • Removal of exotic or invasive species, damaged or diseased vegetation, or vegetation that poses an imminent safety hazard.
  • Any other vegetation removal would require a permit from the county.

3. Setbacks

In summary, s. NR 115.05(3)(b), Wis. Admin. Code, provides:

  • All buildings and structures must be set back at least 75 feet from the ordinary high water mark.
    • Exceptions to the 75-foot setback include piers, boat-hoists, fishing rafts, utilities, walkways, stairways or rail systems, decks or gazebos complying with s. 59.692(1v) and boathouses.
  • "Set back averaging" - if an existing pattern of development exists, counties may allow new homes to be built closer than 75 feet from the ordinary high water mark.

4. Impervious surfaces

In summary, s. NR 115.05(1)(e), Wis. Admin. Code, provides:

  • Properties may have up to 15 percent of their lot in impervious surfaces.
  • If the property owner wishes to expand the impervious surfaces on the lot and exceed 15 percent, the property may have up to 30 percent of the lot in impervious surfaces with shoreland mitigation.
  • Existing impervious surfaces may be maintained, repaired, relocated and reconstructed, subject to any other county standards.

5. Legal nonconformities

In summary, s. NR 115.05(1)(g), Wis. Admin. Code, provides:

  • Property owners may maintain and repair nonconforming principal structures.
  • Property owners may vertically expand nonconforming principal structures that are located at least 35 feet from the OHWM (ordinary high water mark) with shoreland mitigation.
  • Property owners may relocate or reconstruct nonconforming principal structures that are located at least 35 feet from the OHWM with shoreland mitigation.
  • A property owner may expand a nonconforming principal structure laterally or vertically if the expanded portion is beyond the 75-foot shoreland setback.
Did You Know?
Lakes and rivers belong to the state's citizens. See: The Public Trust Doctrine.
The number of homes on lakes of all sizes increased 216 percent from the 1960s to 1995.
As northern lakes are developed...
Songbirds decrease and grackles, cowbirds and other common species increase.
Green frog populations decrease.
Musky, trout and bluegill populations decrease.