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Wisconsin’s Shoreland Management Program

Safeguarding our shorelands

A partnership between state and local government

The Wisconsin Shoreland Management Program protects water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and natural beauty through shoreland zoning ordinances. 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


  • within 300 feet of a navigable stream, or the landward side of a floodplain, whichever is greater.

In this figure, shoreland zoning rules apply in the shaded areas:

Shoreland zone

Shoreland zoning minimum standards

Wisconsin's Shoreland Management Program established statewide minimum standards for shoreland development that must be met or exceeded in county shoreland zoning ordinances. The statewide minimum standards can be found in Chapter NR 115, Wis. Admin. Code, and a summary for each is provided below.

Contact your county zoning authority to review development standards in the shoreland zone. Many counties have adopted additional requirements that are not listed below.

1. Lot size
  • 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

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.

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.


Counties, cities and villages are required to adopt shoreland-wetland zoning ordinances to regulate activities in wetlands in the shoreland zone. The minimum standards for shoreland-wetland zoning ordinances are found in Chapter NR 115, Wis. Admin. Code, for counties and in Chapter NR 117, Wis. Admin. Code, for cities and villages. While they are slightly different, the standards in Chapter NR 115 and 117 establish uses that may be permitted in a wetland in the shoreland zone and any uses that are not listed in the zoning ordinance are prohibited.


Counties, cities and villages are required to adopt ordinances that conform to the minimum standards found in Chapter NR 118, Wis. Admin. Code, for lands within the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway boundary. The Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway extends 52 miles from St. Croix Falls to the confluence of the Mississippi River at Prescott. Towns may, but are not required to, adopt an ordinance under Chapter NR 118, unless the town is located in a county that has not adopted a local zoning ordinance that applies to the town. The development standards established in Chapter NR 118 and administered by local governments guide development away from sensitive areas such as shorelines, wetlands, steep slopes and unstable soils. At sites suitable for development, the regulations promote natural scenic beauty and protect water quality and property values. Development standards for lands in the Lower St. Croix Riverway apply at four points in the development process: land division, permitted uses, design and construction.

The Riverway is jointly managed by the National Park Service, Minnesota DNR and the department in accordance with a Cooperative Management Plan that was signed by the three agencies. The standards in NR 118, reflect the principals and goals agreed to in the Cooperative Management Plan.

For more information about the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway or to view the Cooperative Management Plan, please visit the National Park Service.