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Purchasing property with greenspace

The information provided here is intended to help individuals or businesses looking to purchase property to get an idea of the DNR programs and/or regulations that may apply to the land, whether you plan to maintain it or make changes. There may be issues related to water, soil, plants and animals on the property, current or previous uses of the land, or any materials left behind on the property that may impact use of the land that should be considered before making a purchase.

What regulatory issues need to be considered when purchasing agricultural land?

When buying new land to farm or expanding operations, there are a variety of things to consider before making a purchase or beginning construction. An overview of some of these issues is provided below.

Contact local authorities

It is best to start with local authorities who regulate many land use issues including simple matters such as building permits. Make sure to check with the township and county land conservation department to determine what local permits or approvals are required. For example, while many rural areas are zoned for agriculture, buyers need to understand what type of land uses are allowed on the land they are considering for purchase. Some areas may be zoned rural residential and actually prohibit livestock operations or restrict their size. Prospective buyers also need to know if farm-related businesses are allowed in an area. If over 500 animal units will be housed on a farm, a buyer may need to obtain a conditional use permit or license from certain local governments. See the Animal Unit Calculation Worksheet (3400-025) and Instructions (3400-025Instructions) to determine if this may apply to your operation.

Agricultural Performance Standards

All crop and livestock producers are required to meet Wisconsin's agricultural performance standards and manure management prohibitions. The Wisconsin Runoff Rules: What Farmers Need to Know brochure provides an overview of these rules. Cost-sharing may be available in some cases, and there are grant programs available at the local, state and federal level that can be used to help landowners come into compliance. County land conservation departments are the primary contacts for assisting landowners with these standards and prohibitions and can provide technical assistance and information regarding available funding. A list of county contacts is available in the Land & Water Conservation Directory.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)

Will your agribusiness have 1,000 animal units or more? If so, it will be considered a CAFO and will have to comply with a variety of environmental requirements. The DNR offers the Animal Unit Calculation Worksheet (3400-025) and Instructions (3400-025Instructions) to help make this determination.

CAFOs are required to obtain a Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit from the DNR before reaching the 1,000 animal unit threshold. This permit will help the business manage manure and wastewater in a manner that protects water quality. You will need to begin the permit process 12 months before becoming a CAFO, so be sure to plan ahead! Information on the CAFO permit application process can be obtained at First-time CAFO WPDES permit applications. If a WPDES permit will be changing hands during a property transaction, the current and proposed permittees must submit a written agreement (such as the Stipulation of Permit Acceptance) to the DNR specifying the date of transfer and the new owner or operator's acceptance of responsibility to comply with the permit and liability for any violations. For further questions about CAFOs and the WPDES permit program, visit the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations page or contact the DNR's Agricultural runoff management staff.

Other Considerations

Proper selection of an agricultural site depends on a sound understanding of many legal requirements. For example, prospective buyers need to consider road regulations and how restrictions might affect their operation. There may also be easements or encumbrances that restrict use of a property. Hazardous waste or even an abandoned manure pit on a site may expose new landowners to environmental liabilities. In order to protect themselves, buyers may consider an environmental site assessment to evaluate the risk.

There are other DNR permits and regulations that could apply to agricultural operations that need to be considered. For instance, if you are planning a construction project that will impact one or more acres of land, a construction site storm water permit will be required. There are also regulations if a property has or is near wetlands or waterways. Review information on wetlands and shoreland permits on the Waterways webpage. In addition, agricultural operations may require the use of a high capacity well, which will be covered by DNR regulations. Depending on the number of people the wells serve, the operation could even be considered a public water system. Visit Other permits or regulations that many apply to agricultural operations for information these and other requirements.

The DNR offers guidance to farmers and food processors that are new, expanding or relocating. Contact the agribusiness sector specialist for additional guidance.

What additional resources are available for buying farmland?

There are many factors to consider if you are looking to start a farm. Links to just some of the resources available are provided below.

How do I know if there are endangered species on a property?

Certain rare species of plants and animals as well as important habitats are protected in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin's endangered and threatened species laws page provides an overview of the law and the species protected. The list of protected species does change periodically. See an up-to-date list at Wisconsin's endangered and threatened species list.

Before beginning a project that will disturb land or water, it's important to know if any protected species could be impacted by such activities. The DNR's Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation monitors endangered resources and creates management plans to protect them and promote recovery. It is illegal to take, transport, possess, process or sell any animal species and some plant species on the Wisconsin endangered and threatened species list.

Activities that will have no or very little impact on endangered resources have been evaluated, and a broad incidental take permit/authorization (BITP/A) is available for these types of activities. See table 1 at BITP/A for No/low impact activities to see if your project is covered. If your activities are covered under this BITP/A, a more in-depth investigation, called an Endangered Resources Review, would not be necessary. Although no application or fees are required, it is necessary to report your activities.

When conducting a project that will disturb land or water (such as residential development, prescribed burns, utility maintenance or lake drawdowns), it is important to evaluate the potential impact of the project on rare species before beginning the activity. After checking the BITP/A, the next step would be to visit the Natural Heritage Inventory (NHI) Public Portal. This mapping tool will provide an instant response in the form of an Endangered Resources Preliminary Assessment. The ER Preliminary Assessment will indicate whether the project could potentially impact endangered resources and whether an Endangered Resources Review is required or recommended. If not, the assessment will return a result of "no actions required/recommended".

If a review is needed, the next step will be to submit an ER Review Request Form (1700-047). DNR staff will screen the project for possible impacts to endangered resources. Details about how to submit a review can be found on the Endangered resources review webpage.

If you are aware of a rare species in an area, please report it using the Reporting forms for rare plants and animals. This information is very helpful to better manage our rare species and for making good conservation decisions.

If you have any questions, see the Endangered Resources Review Program Contacts page for a list of knowledgeable staff.

Are invasive species present? What does this mean for a property?

Invasive species are plants, animals and pathogens that are "out of place." A species is regarded as invasive if it has been introduced by human action to a location or area where it did not previously occur naturally (i.e. it is not native), becomes capable of establishing a breeding population in the new location without further intervention by humans, and spreads widely throughout the new location. Wisconsin's laws focus on invasive species whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. For more information on invasive species, visit the DNR’s main Invasive species webpage. Understanding invasive species also provides an overview. Invasive species occupy different types of habitats: aquatic, wetland, and terrestrial. View the following webpages for specific information on each type, including lists of regulated species.

Wisconsin's invasive species rule, ch. NR 40, Wis. Adm. Code, makes it illegal to possess, transport, transfer, or introduce certain invasive species in Wisconsin without a permit.

Ch. NR 40 classifies invasive species as either prohibited or restricted. Prohibited species are those for which control is required. Species under this category are not yet present in Wisconsin or are found in only a few areas or in very small populations; therefore, the potential exists to eradicate and prevent their further spread. It is illegal to possess, transport, transfer or introduce these species without a permit. If a prohibited species is found on your property, you may be required to conduct a control effort. The DNR may inspect a property for prohibited invasive species and conduct control measures with permission from the landowner or with a judicial inspection warrant.

Restricted species are those that are already widespread in Wisconsin. Although they too can have a significant environmental and/or economic impact, it is unlikely that they can be completely eradicated from the state. It is illegal to transport, transfer or introduce these species without a permit; however, possession is allowed with the exception of restricted fish and crayfish. Although the DNR encourages the control of these species, it is not mandatory.

When property is transferred in Wisconsin, prohibited invasive species located on the property are the responsibility of the new owner. The new owner will "possess" the prohibited species and will be required take control measures. It is good practice to learn of the existence of prohibited invasive species located on the property in connection with any pre-sale inspections of the property.

Chapter NR 40: The Invasive Species Rule Summary & Reference Guide (SS-1160) is a fact sheet that provides a quick summary of the rule. A more in-depth explanation on NR 40 can be found on the Invasive species rule – NR 40 webpage, including information specific to certain impacted stakeholders such as the plant industry, pet stores, gardeners and road-side managers under the "Business Resources" tab.

If you have any questions about invasive species and your obligations, use the Contacts page to find the right person to answer your questions or contact the Small Business Environmental Assistance Program for help getting to the right contact.

How can I protect my property from invasive species?

Learn what you can do to prevent invasive species from spreading on the Prevention page. You might also want to use Best management practices (BMP), which are voluntary actions you can take to reduce the likelihood of moving invasives.

If you do discover prohibited invasives on your property, you are encouraged to report them to the DNR and required to control the species. Go to Report invasive species for reporting instructions. The DNR also has resources for controlling invasives on the Control methods page.

NR 40 also includes regulations that everyone must follow in order to help stop the spread of invasives. If you use a boat, go fishing or use firewood, be sure you are in compliance with the Boat transportation and bait laws and Firewood rules.

What needs to be considered when buying forested property?

It is important to think about the uses intended for a property and how you plan to manage the land before making a purchase. For instance, are you going to build on the property or harvest timber? How much is the timber worth? Is managing for wildlife important? DNR has tips on how to get started with land use and management. You may want to enlist the help of a professional forester to help you inventory the land, determine your goals and create a plan. The department has a variety of programs that can help a property owner to improve the land or sustainably manage it, depending on their goals. The Forest landowners page has resources on land management, including information on tax incentive programs, available grants, how to find a forester and how to sustainably manage a forest.

How can forested property be sustainably managed?

There are a variety of public and private resources available to help property owners sustainably manage forested land. The DNR has foresters available to assist landowners. The "Your forest" heading on the Forest landowners page also has links to helpful information about caring for a property. Financial incentives are available to encourage sustainable practices. The Forestry Assistance Locator can help landowners find local DNR staff and cooperating foresters that can provide professional help. Looking to plant some trees on a property? See the Tree planting page for information on ordering seedlings, creating a planting plan and how to properly plant. For information about potential threats to a forest, including diseases, insects and invasive plants, visit the Forest health webpage or contact DNR forest health staff.

What types of financial assistance or incentives are available for forest management, and what are the obligations when participating in a program?

There are a number of financial incentives for sustainably managing and/or improving forests and other natural lands. Tax incentives are offered through the Managed Forest Law and Forest Crop Law programs. Additional cost sharing programs are available to help offset the cost of enhancing land from both state and federal agencies. Information on all incentives can be found at Financial forestry help.

Wisconsin's Managed Forest Law (MFL) is a property tax incentive program that offers a modified tax status to private landowners who are sustainably growing trees for timber production. Participation in the program requires a landowner to have a management plan for the property written by a certified plan writer. Additional uses including agriculture, grazing, commercial storage, game farms, cell towers, mines, quarries, orchards, recreational development or private residence development are not allowed on MFL land, so landowners should make sure they understand their land use goals before entering the program. The DNR has a list of management plan writers who can help with the application process on the Certified plan writer page.

For landowners thinking about purchasing property that is already registered in the MFL program, it is recommended that they contact a DNR forester. The land may remain in the program if certain criteria are met. Sellers are also required to disclose the status of their MFL lands to a perspective purchaser. If you choose to purchase MFL property, you will need to notify the DNR of the transfer and a new MFL management plan may be required.

More information on MFL is available on the Managed Forest Law webpage, including a list of frequently asked questions. A Program Summary (FR-0295) includes additional information on selling or transferring MFL land. For a list of DNR and Cooperating Foresters that can assist with the process, visit the Forestry Assistance Locator page.

Forest Crop Law (FCL) is another property tax incentive program for owners of forested land. If you purchase property that is enrolled in this program, you will have to notify the DNR of the change of ownership or request that the land be withdrawn from the program. Remaining in the program requires following the established management schedule and allowing access to the property for hunting and fishing. There are also restrictions on buildings on FCL property. Property owners can withdraw their property from the program at any time; however, a withdrawal tax does apply. For details on purchasing FCL property, withdrawing from the program and harvesting timber, visit Forest Crop Law.

The DNR also offers the Wisconsin Forest Landowner Grant Program. This cost sharing program allows for reimbursing a landowner up to 50% of eligible costs incurred for non-commercial activities to protect and enhance forested land, prairies and water. A DNR forester can help develop a plan. See the Wisconsin Forest Landowner Grant Program factsheet or Financial forestry help for details on the grant program. The financial page also has links to federal cost sharing programs that may be of interest.

What do I need to know about selling timber?

Are you planning to harvest and sell timber? You may first want to review Conducting a Successful Timber Sale - a primer for landowners (FR-0254) to learn about the issues involved. It is a good idea to seek professional help when planning a timber harvest. The DNR can provide advice on timber sale issues such as harvest methods, names of commercial timber buyers, consulting foresters, and best management practices to prevent soil erosion.

Writing forestry contracts provides tips on hiring a consultant and selling timber. Understanding the Sample Timber Sale Contract also provides suggestions about what to include in this important agreement.

Assistance to forest businesses and communities provides links to business resources to find forestry items for sale, equipment and services. Businesses may also want to visit the Wood using industry listings page to search Wisconsin's Wood Using Industry Online Database.

If you have questions, visit the Forest Products Services Team webpage for DNR contacts in your area of the state.

Managing Waste in Connection with Property Transaction

Waste uncovered after a property transaction can take the form of materials left behind and spilled or buried, whether dumped or in an old landfill, or old structures you may want to demolish and burn or bury. Continue reading to learn more.

How do I handle drums and piles of waste on the property?

Be careful! Abandoned materials can be dangerous to human health and the environment, and expensive to dispose. Be sure to do a thorough inspection of the property and ask about any materials, storage containers and equipment. Waste materials that are ignitable, corrosive, reactive or toxic or are specifically listed by the DNR as hazardous waste have specific requirements concerning their generation, storage, transport, treatment and disposal requirements for businesses. A few examples of these wastes include acids, bases, paint thinner, paints, inks and solvents. For details on dealing with hazardous waste, visit the Hazardous waste overview page.

Non-hazardous solid wastes in Wisconsin are generally disposed of at licensed landfills or, in the La Crosse County and Barron County areas, at licensed municipal solid waste combustors. Onsite disposal or burial of solid waste is only allowed in very limited circumstances. Hazardous waste generally needs to be sent to a licensed hazardous waste treatment, storage or disposal facility. The Managing waste and materials website has a broad range of information about waste materials and how to dispose of them properly.

Many types of waste can be recycled. Materials such as certain electronics, used oil and oil filters, paper, cardboard, aluminum and glass containers, tin or steel cans, certain plastic containers, tires and major appliances are all banned from landfills and incineration; waste tires may be burned for energy recovery. Local ordinances may also require additional materials to be recycled. More information can be found at What to recycle in Wisconsin and Business and workplace recycling.

Can I burn the waste on the property?

Open burning (burning any material outdoors without any air pollution controls) is regulated in Wisconsin for both individuals and businesses. Make sure to also check with local authorities. Local restrictions and permit requirements may be more stringent than the statewide regulations.

Businesses are generally not permitted to burn waste they generate. Individuals are also prohibited from burning many kinds of waste, including treated wood, plastic and household garbage. The burning of any structure (building, home, shed, etc.) is also prohibited. The only exception is for firefighter training exercises. There are many alternatives to burning waste, including recycling, composting and landfilling. For an overview of what can and cannot be burned, see Can my business burn waste? or Facts on open burning for business, industry and municipalities in Wisconsin. Additional details can be found on the DNR's Open burning page.

Is there a landfill on or near the site? What's buried there? How might the presence of a landfill impact property use?

The DNR's Landfills website has lists of landfills that are known to exist around the state and includes information on what is buried there. A Historic Registry of sites is also available.

Building in close proximity to, or on, a historic fill or landfill site can come with restrictions. There may also be unpleasant odors. Guidance for development on historic fill sites or landfills will assist in deciding whether building on these properties is feasible or desirable.

I want to demolish, construct or renovate a building. What do I need to know?

If you will be working on a demolition, construction or renovation project, there will be waste and other materials that must be properly managed. There are several DNR programs you will want to work with. Before you begin, refer to the DNR fact sheet Planning Your Demolition or Renovation Project (WA-651).

Many types of C&D waste such as aluminum siding, asphalt, asphalt shingles, brick/masonry, carpet, carpet pads, concrete, metal pipes, porcelain plumbing fixtures, PVC pipes, steel, untreated wood, vinyl siding and wallboard/drywall (gypsum) can be reused or recycled. Keep these materials separate from other waste. Non-recyclable waste must be disposed of appropriately. It is illegal to burn structures in Wisconsin as well as most C&D materials. For more information, see the Demolition, Construction and Renovation page.

Has the property had any spills or waste related violations?

The Wisconsin Remediation and Redevelopment Database (WRRD) provides information on different contaminated land activities in Wisconsin. Any questions regarding a property that has had a spill can be directed to a Remediation and Redevelopment specialist. To inquire if a property has had a waste violation, contact a Waste and Materials Management specialist. Activities regulated by the Waste and Materials Management Program include landfill operation, waste transportation, hazardous waste generation, wood burning, waste processing, sharps collection, etc.

If a business will engage in any of the above activities, it is important to take steps to prevent spills and know how to respond if a spill should occur. See the Small Business Environmental Assistance Program’s Spills page for details.

How do I find out if there are wetlands on a property?

Wetlands serve a variety of vital ecological functions. Therefore, activities that will impact them are regulated. It is important to know if wetlands are present on a property and how their presence might impact your plans for the land being purchased.

A wetland is defined as "an area where water is at, near, or above the land surface long enough to be capable of supporting aquatic or hydrophytic (water-loving) vegetation and which has soils indicative of wet conditions." Wetlands are not necessarily wet during all parts of the year, so the lack of water at a given time does not mean wetlands are not present. The DNR has tools to help property owners identify wetland areas or potential wetland areas and decide if they need to hire a professional to conduct wetland delineation on the property.

The first step in evaluating a property for wetlands is to review existing maps. The Surface Water Data Viewer contains the Wisconsin Wetland Inventory maps which are designed to help determine if wetlands are likely to be present on a site. The Map Review page provides more information on using maps.

Because maps are just guides and may not show every feature or wetland on a property, it is important to walk the land to see if the map accurately matches up with what is found on the ground and have a professional verify if wetlands are present. For a checklist describing physical clues to look for, see our Physical Clues page.

The DNR's Wetland Identification Program consists of two services that help landowners evaluate whether a wetland is present on their property.

  • The Wetland Identification Service provides a written evaluation, based upon an on-site inspection, of whether a property contains wetlands. Up to 5 acres can be reviewed for a fee of $300 per acre. Requesters will receive a response in 60 days or less. The wetland identification service cannot be used as a substitute for official wetland delineation and will only provide requesters with a presence/absence determination and an approximate wetland boundary location. Because the service will only provide approximate wetland boundary locations, it may not be suitable for all projects. Projects that have setback requirements or are located very near a wetland may not be good candidates for the service.
  • The Wetland Confirmation Service consists of a written statement, based upon an on-site inspection, of whether the DNR agrees with the wetland boundaries delineated by a consultant. A fee of $300 per 20 acres of land reviewed is associated with this service, and requesters will receive a response in 60 days or less. The goal of this service is to provide landowners and developers certainty that a project's delineated wetland boundaries are accurate before project plans are finalized. Taking advantage of this service early in the planning phase will prevent unexpected wetland boundary concerns from delaying the approval of a project.

If you're considering buying land, you may want to complete a wetland addendum with your offer to purchase. The addendum gives you more time to hire a professional to verify whether there is a wetland and allows you to re–negotiate or rescind your offer.

For more information, visit the Wetlands page.

I want to build a road or structure but there is a wetland on the site. What should I do?

The DNR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, counties and local municipalities all regulate wetland impacts. State regulations require avoidance of wetland impacts if possible. Permitting requirements exist for activities that cannot avoid affecting wetlands. Permits take time, so it's important to plan ahead and apply for permits early in your planning process.

Projects that impact wetlands below certain thresholds may qualify for a general DNR permit if the permittee can meet all the required criteria. For projects that do not qualify for a general permit, the property owner will need to work with the DNR to apply for an individual permit. DNR staff will help determine how to minimize impacts and if any compensatory mitigation will be necessary. In the application it is necessary to demonstrate that wetland impacts cannot be completely avoided, list the steps that have been taken to reduce wetland impacts, and demonstrate that the project will not have significant adverse impacts on wetland functions and values. See Wetland regulatory programs or the Wetland Disturbance pages for details. It may also be a good idea to include the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service and the local zoning office in the meeting with the DNR.

Additional resources