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Piers and Recreational Structures Permitting

NOTES ON WATERWAYS PERMITS

For each project type below, if an exemption or a general permit is available, you will find a link to a checklist of requirements. If your project does not meet exemption eligibility criteria, review the general permit checklist. If your project does not meet general permit eligibility criteria, you must apply for an individual permit.

To start a permit application, use the DNR Water ePermitting System. A WAMS ID is required.

To determine if a local permit or a federal permit is required for your project, contact your city or county zoning authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – St. Paul District Office [exit DNR].

State law requires a landowner with a project site that is 1 acre or larger in size to obtain a construction site stormwater permit. To submit a notice of intent, visit the DNR Stormwater Runoff Permitting page.

Applicable state statutes and code:  ss. 30.12, 30.121, 30.13, 30.135, 30.61, 30.74, Wis. Stats. [exit DNR] and Chapters NR 5.09 [exit DNR]NR 325 [exit DNR]NR 326 [exit DNR], and NR 329, Wis. Adm. Code [exit DNR].

Waterways Recreational Structures Permitting Process

  1. Find your project type below from the list.
  2. Review your permitting options:
    • Exemption - If an exemption is available and you meet all of the eligibility criteria, you do not need a permit.
    • General Permit - If your project does not qualify for an exemption, review the eligibility criteria for a general permit and apply for it if your project meets all criteria.
    • Individual Permit - If your project does not qualify for an exemption or general permit, you must apply for an individual permit.
    • Certification - Some project types are authorized only through a certification process. For these you will find instructions below.
  3. Review Waterway Designations:
    • Some exemptions and general permits are not eligible for projects on designated waterways.
    • Use Property Lookup to review waterway designations on your project area.

Piers, Docks, and Wharves

New piers that do not meet exemption eligibility criteria will require a DNR permit. 

All existing piers and wharves that do not have a valid state permit and that were first placed in the water before April 17, 2012, are exempt from needing state approval and can be placed in lakes and rivers the same as they always have with few limitations.

*Note – When reviewing proposals for new solid piers and groins, the DNR will consider the standards listed in s. 30.12 (3m), Wis. Stats., including structure placement and performance relative to fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, navigation and recreation, and natural scenic beauty. In certain situations, these types of structures are known to disrupt littoral drift patterns, worsening erosion in some instances and causing other environmental concerns. Fluctuating water levels on the Great Lakes resulting from climate change also impacts structure performance and reduces outcome certainty. Therefore, it may be challenging for new solid pier and groin proposals to meet state standards for permit issuance. If you are considering a newly constructed solid pier or groin, please contact DNR Waterways staff first.

Visit Pier FAQ for further information about pier placement requirements. 

Determine permit required

This is a text version of our Piers, docks and wharves interactive question and answer module to help you understand if you need a permit to have a pier, dock or wharf on your property. If you see this message, you currently have JavaScript disabled or are in compatibility mode while using Internet Explorer. This text version is here to help you understand if you need a permit from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for your pier project, and if so, which one. Please go through and answer each question. This will help you determine which permit you will need.

Question 1 :

Are you the riparian owner of the shoreline for which you want to place a pier, dock, or wharf?

If your answer is "Yes,” go to Question 2.

You've answered No.

If your answer is “No,”:

Only riparian owners of shoreline property are allowed to place a pier, dock or wharf. This is true if you are a valid easement holder and have access to the water through someone else's property. However, some valid easement holders do have easements that allow for the placement of a pier, dock or wharf. Check your easement language, and also review this part of the state law to make sure if you are an easement holder that you can place a structure like a pier, dock, or wharf.

You've answered I don't know.

If your answer is “I don't know,”:

A riparian owner is someone who owns the land abutting a stream or lake.

Question 2 :

Do you want to place a new pier or wharf or modify an existing pier or wharf in the St. Croix River?

You've answered Yes.

If your answer is “Yes,”:

Any new pier or proposed modification of a pier on the St. Croix River requires a permit instead of an exemption per 30.12(2m) Wis. Statues. This means an Individual Permit would be needed. This requirement is based on the Lower St. Croix Cooperative Management Plan (Appendix B) and NR 118.05(1)(a)2.b. Wis. Admin. Code. The reason for permit requirements on this waterbody is because of the classification of the waterway and the state's agreement with the Federal National Park Service and Minnesota DNR in the cooperative management plan for the river.

If your answer is "No,” go to Question 3.

Question 3 :

What do you want to do?

If your answer is "I want to place a brand new pier or wharf that I have never placed on the property before,” go to Question 16.

If your answer is "I want to continue to place, repair, maintain, replace in-kind my existing pier or wharf,” go to Question 5.

Question 4 :

Do you have a permit or written authorization to place your new pier or wharf?

You've answered Yes.

If your answer is “Yes,”:

You do not have to do anything. As long as you place your pier or wharf in accordance with your permit or written authorization, you are fine.

If your answer is "No,” go to Question 8.

Question 5 :

Do you have a permit or written authorization from the department of natural resources to place your pier?

You've answered Yes.

If your answer is “Yes,”:

You do not need to do anything! Keep placing your pier or dock as you always have!

If your answer is "No,” go to Question 14.

Question 7 :

On your existing pier that was first placed after 2012 that you have no authorization for, Does your loading platform (if you have one) have a surface area of 200 square feet or less? If you do not have a loading platform (0 square feet), choose 'Yes.'

If your answer is "Yes,” go to Question 9.

You've answered No.

If your answer is “No,”:

You will need to apply for a pier, dock and wharf individual permit. *Please note: WAMS ID and password required to apply. If you do not have a WAMS ID, you must register for one before proceeding.
 

Please be aware there may be additional permit standards you must meet. Before applying for a permit, please review the Permit application checklist [PDF] and also be sure to review the Sample Drawings [PDF] for this activity.

If you do not want to apply for an individual permit, you can always modify your boat slip.

You've answered I don't know.

If your answer is “I don't know,”:

Please review this video to learn how to measure your pier: How to measure your pier [VIDEO Length 2:52]

Question 8 :

We have established that you are placing a brand new pier (no pier placed on the property before). Will any part of your new pier or wharf be over 6 ft. wide?

If your answer is "Yes,” go to Question 12.

If your answer is "No,” go to Question 11.

Question 9 :

Does your pier or wharf exceed the number of boat slips or personal watercraft that you are allowed?

You've answered Yes.

If your answer is “Yes,”:

To place a pier or wharf that will exceed the number of slips allowed (see below), you will need to apply for an individual permit. Apply for a pier, dock and wharf individual permit. If you do not want to apply for an individual permit, you can always modify your boat slip.

*Please note: WAMS ID and password required to apply. If you do not have a WAMS ID, you must register for one before proceeding.
 

Please be aware there may be additional permit standards you must meet. Before applying for a permit, please review the Permit Application Checklist [PDF] and also be sure to review the Sample Drawings [PDF] for this activity.

  Example A Example B
Amount of shoreline owned (in feet): 75 125
Maximum number of boat slips allowed: 2 3
Maximum number of personal watercraft (PWC) allowed: 2 3
Total number of watercraft (boats and PWC) allowed: 4 6

You've answered No.

If your answer is “No,”:

You may qualify for the exemption. You do not need a permit for your new pier if your plan meets the rest of the exemption standards on our Exemption Checklist [PDF] and the Pier planner [PDF].

You've answered I don't know.

If your answer is “I don't know,”:

The number of boat slips and personal watercraft allowed on your property without needing a permit is determined by the amount of shoreline frontage owned. The law states that to place a pier or dock without a permit that two boat slips are allowed for the first 50 feet of shoreline owned and one boat slip for each additional full 50 feet of shoreline owned. In addition to the boat slip allowance, you can place up to two personal watercraft for the first 50 feet of shoreline owned, and one personal watercraft for each additional full 50 feet of shoreline. The table below illustrates two examples of how to calculate the number of boat slips allowed without needing a permit. If you exceed the number of boat slips allowed on your property, please go back and choose “Yes.”

  Example A Example B
Amount of shoreline owned (in feet): 75 125
Maximum number of boat slips allowed: 2 3
Maximum number of personal watercraft (PWC) allowed: 2 3
Total number of watercraft (boats and PWC) allowed: 4 6

Question 11 :

Will your new pier or wharf exceed the number of boat slips you are allowed?

You've answered Yes.

If your answer is “Yes,”:

You will need to apply for a pier, dock and wharf individual permit. *Please note: WAMS ID and password required to apply. If you do not have a WAMS ID, you must register for one before proceeding.

Please be aware there may be additional permit standards you must meet. Before applying for a permit, please review the Permit application checklist [PDF] and also be sure to review the Sample drawings [PDF] for this activity.

You've answered No.

If your answer is “No,”:

You have verified that no area is over 6ft wide and that you won't exceed the number of boat slips you are allowed. Your pier does not need a permit. Please make sure and verify that your existing pier does not require a permit by making sure that it meets the other criteria specified in the Exemption checklist [PDF] and the Pier planner [PDF]

You've answered I don't know.

If your answer is “I don't know,”:

The number of boat slips and personal watercraft allowed on your property without needing a permit is determined by the amount of shoreline frontage owned. The law states that to place a pier or dock without a permit that two boat slips are allowed for the first 50 feet of shoreline owned and one boat slip for each additional full 50 feet of shoreline owned. In addition to the boat slip allowance, you can place up to two personal watercraft for the first 50 feet of shoreline owned, and one personal watercraft for each additional full 50 feet of shoreline. The table below illustrates two examples of how to calculate the number of boat slips allowed without needing a permit. If you exceed the number of boat slips allowed on your property, please go back and choose “Yes.”

  Example A Example B
Amount of shoreline owned (in feet): 75 125
Maximum number of boat slips allowed: 2 3
Maximum number of personal watercraft (PWC) allowed: 2 3
Total number of watercraft (boats and PWC) allowed: 4 6

Question 12 :

What part of your new pier or wharf will be greater than 6ft wide?

You've answered Main stem or main stem and loading platform.

If your answer is “Main stem or main stem and loading platform,”:

You will need to apply for a pier, dock and wharf individual permit. *Please note: WAMS ID and password required to apply. If you do not have a WAMS ID, you must register for one before proceeding.

Please be aware there may be additional permit standards you must meet. Before applying for a permit, please review the Permit application checklist [PDF] and also be sure to review the Sample drawings [PDF] for this activity.

If your answer is "Loading platform,” go to Question 13.

You've answered I don't know.

If your answer is “I don't know,”:

Please review this diagram to determine the difference between the main stem and the loading platform.

Pier Diagram

Also, feel free to review the video on how to measure your pier below.

What's my pier size? How to measure your pier
[VIDEO, Length 2:52].

Question 13 :

Will your new loading platform have a surface area of 200 square feet or less?

You've answered No.

If your answer is “No,”:

You will need to apply for a pier, dock and wharf individual permit. *Please note: WAMS ID and password required to apply. If you do not have a WAMS ID, you must register for one before proceeding.

Please be aware there may be additional permit standards you must meet. Before applying for a permit, please review the Permit application checklist [PDF] and also be sure to review the Sample drawings [PDF] for this activity.

You've answered Yes.

If your answer is “Yes,”:

You have verified that the surface area of your loading platform is 200 sq ft or less and that your main stem is less than 6ft wide. Your pier does not need a permit. Please make sure and verify that your existing pier does not require a permit by making sure that it meets the other criteria specified in the Exemption checklist [PDF] and the Pier planner [PDF]

You've answered I don't know.

If your answer is “I don't know,”:

Please review this diagram to determine the difference between the main stem and the loading platform.

Pier Diagram

Also, feel free to review the video on how to measure your pier below.

What's my pier size? How to measure your pier
[VIDEO, Length 2:52].

Question 14 :

Has your existing pier, dock, or wharf been initially placed before April 2012 or after April of 2012?

If your answer is "Placed before 2012,” go to Question 15.

If your answer is "Placed after 2012,” go to Question 7.

Question 15 :

Does your pier meet the Pier planner [PDF]? That is, does it meet the:

  • Length: The length needed to moor your boat or use boat lift, or 3-foot water depth, whichever is greater. 3-foot water depth as measured at summer low levels.
  • Location: Does not interfere with the rights of other riparian owners.
  • Number of boats: Two for the first 50 feet of frontage, one for every additional full 50 feet.
  • Number of personal watercraft: Two for the first 50 feet of frontage, one for every additional full 50 feet.

You've answered Yes.

If your answer is “Yes,”:

You may qualify for the exemption. You do not need a permit for your new pier if your plan meets the rest of the exemption standards on our Exemption Checklist [PDF] and Pier Planner [PDF].

You've answered No.

If your answer is “No,”:

That's ok if your pier does NOT meet the pier planner [PDF] since as part of 2011 Wis. Act 167, all existing piers, docks and wharves initially placed in the water before April 17th, 2012 that did not meet the pier planner [PDF] are exempt from permitting requirements (grandfathered) as long as:

  • Your existing structure does not interfere with the riparian rights of other riparian owners;
  • You had not been previously notified by the department telling you that your structure was detrimental to the public interest.

The new law (ss. 30.12(1k) Wis. Stats.) allows you to repair and maintain and relocate and reconfigure your existing dock as long as you do not make it larger.

Question 16 :

Do you want to place a new pier or wharf in a waterbody designated as a State Wild River?

You've answered Yes.

If your answer is “Yes,”:

State law Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 302.04(6) prohibits the placement of new piers on state wild rivers.

If your answer is "No,” go to Question 4.

You've answered I don't know.

If your answer is “I don't know,”:

A State Wild River is a waterbody designated by the legislature to provide the public with an opportunity to enjoy natural streams, to attract out-of-state visitors and assure the well-being of our tourist industry. It is in the interest of this state to preserve some rivers in a free-flowing condition and to protect them from development, and for this purpose, a system of wild rivers is established. A list can be found here - https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/statutes/statutes/30/II/26

 

Permitting Options
Pier Technical Resources

Recreational Structures Project Types

Public Access Abandonment

See the Public Access Abandonment page for more information.

Boat Ramp

A boat ramp or boat landing can provide recreational access to public waters. A permit is required to place concrete planks, gravel, rock or other materials on public lake or streambed to provide public access.  General permits are available for boat ramps open to the public and boat ramps on larger lakes that have limited existing ramps. Individual permits are available for private boat ramps.

Permitting Options
Boathouse Repair

State statue prohibits the construction of a new “wet” boathouse either on or over a lake, flowage, river, creek or streambed. A “wet” boathouse is a boathouse built entirely or partially below the Ordinary High Water Mark.

A Boathouse Certification is required for construction, reconstruction, repair and maintenance of “wet” boathouses located below the OHWM that meets the checklist requirements and one of the following conditions to qualify for the statutory exception.

  • The boathouse was constructed before December 1979 and the repair or maintenance does not affect size or location and does not result in conversion to living quarters.
  • The boathouse has historical or cultural value as determined by the state historical society or local or county historical society.
  • The boathouse is one story and is located over an authorized waterway enlargement.
  • The boathouse was damaged by a violent wind, vandalism, or fire, and the damage must have occurred after January 1984.
  • The boathouse is used exclusively for commercial purposes in a harbor or a river that is a tributary to the Great Lakes or on an outlying water and the work is limited to the expansion, repair or maintenance of an existing boathouse.
Permitting Options
Boat Shelter

A boat shelter is a shore station or a boat lift which may have a roof but does not have walls or sides. It can be a seasonal or permanent structure designed and constructed to provide cover for a berth place for watercraft. Such a structure may include a boat hoist or lift.

Permitting Options
Boat Shelter Technical Resources
Beach Maintenance

A permit is required to place pea gravel or rock on the beds of public waters below the Ordinary High Water Mark. Pea gravel is only allowed on lakes and not on a stream, creek or river bed, or in wetlands. Placement of sand on most shorelines is not allowed, because it tends to be displaced from the site and can negatively impact fish and wildlife habitat.

Work done by hand, including cleaning up debris or plant and animal nuisance deposits such as dead fish, mussels, algae, etc., does not require a permit. Removing invasive plants along the shoreline by hand does not require a permit.

Mechanized vegetation clearing or dredging along the shoreline to remove invasive plants or nuisance deposits requires a DNR permit.

Invasive species removal with herbicide (chemicals) requires a permit from the DNR Aquatic Plant Management Program.

Permitting Options

Lakefront property owners should keep in mind that even during times of low water levels, activities below the Ordinary High Water Mark that impact the lakebed may require a DNR permit. 

For more information see the Beach Maintenance Activities Factsheet [PDF].

Swim Raft

A permit is needed to place a swim raft or water trampoline in a lake or flowage if it does not meet exemption criteria. All swim rafts, those that require a permit and those that do not, must be placed within 200 feet of shore, and can only be placed by a waterfront property owner.

Swim rafts may not interfere with public rights in navigable waters or interfere with the rights of other property owners.

Permitting Options
Buoys

A mooring buoy floats in water and is anchored away from the shoreline to which boats can be moored in deeper water. A mooring buoy placed within 150 feet of shore does not require a state permit if it does not affect public rights or other riparian owners’ rights. A mooring buoy further than 150 feet from shore will require a DNR permit - use the Individual Mooring Justification Worksheet below:

Permits may also be needed for mooring buoys from your local municipality. Check local ordinances before placing a mooring buoy.

Any placement of marker and regulatory buoys must be approved by the local DNR Conservation Warden and by the local unit of government. Submit the Waterway Marker Application and Permit form below:

Water Ski Platforms

A water ski platform is a gently inclined platform with a smooth surface, used by water skiers to take off to execute jumps. All water ski platforms require a DNR permit.

Ski platforms or jumps located more than 200 feet from shore must be lit with white light during the hours from sunset to sunrise. These structures, no matter how far from shore, should be well marked both day and night to warn boaters of the navigational hazards. Contact your local DNR conservation warden for lighting requirements.

The National Show Ski Association recommends that water ski jumps be placed in no less than 5 feet of water. Also be aware that the structure cannot interfere with other waterfront property owners and All water skiing activities are regulated by ss. 30.66 and 30.69, Wis. Stats. which forbid water skiing within 100 feet of an anchored occupied boat, marked swimming area, public boat landing, dock, raft, pier, or buoyed restricted area. Please read the Wisconsin Boating Laws Handbook to be aware of these restrictions.

If you need to place marker buoys around your waterski platform or jump see the Buoys section above.  

Permitting Options
Technical Resources