Dane County Shoreland Zoning (Chapter 11, Dane County Code)

Frequently Asked Questions

What are "shorelands?"

Why regulate shorelands?

What is a "navigable water?"

What is the "ordinary high water mark?"

Where does the county ordinance apply?

What are the lot design standards?

What is "mitigation?"

What about wetlands?

I have a vacant lot that was platted before shoreland zoning went into effect. The lot doesn’t comply with the current ordinance area or width standards. Can I build on it?

I have an existing building that was built before shoreland zoning went into effect. The building is closer than 75 feet to the water and takes up more than 15% of the lot. Are there limits on what I can do to renovate, expand or replace this building?

I’m a farmer. Do I need a permit before plowing or harvesting near water?

What if I can’t meet any of the ordinance standards or mitigation options?

Where do I start?

What are "shorelands?"

State statute defines shorelands as areas within 1,000 feet of a navigable lake or pond and within 300 feet of a navigable river or stream.

Why regulate shorelands?

In their natural state, shorelands provide critical environmental functions, including water filtration, soil stabilization and habitat for a wide variety of fish and wildlife. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimates that 94% of all aquatic life spends at least part of its life cycle within 30 feet of the shore. By replacing natural shore cover with pavement, buildings and turf grass, poorly designed development can impair or disrupt these functions, creating severe environmental impacts. Under Section 59.692 of the Wisconsin Statutes, every county in the state must adopt ordinances that regulate development in shorelands, in order to protect water quality, natural scenic beauty and fish and wildlife habitat. County ordinances must meet or exceed minimum standards established in NR 115, Wisconsin Administrative Code.

What is a "navigable water?"

Navigable waters are defined in the Public Trust Doctrine and state statute. Generally, they include all natural lakes, ponds, rivers and streams (including intermittent streams). Artificial drainages or stormwater conveyances that were not previously natural waterways are generally not considered navigable. Waters shown in USGS Quadrangle maps, Dane County floodplain maps, or the County GIS system are presumed to be navigable. The Dane County Zoning Administrator or the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources can determine whether or not a particular waterway is navigable under state law.

What is the "ordinary high water mark?"

The ordinary high water mark (or OHWM) represents the highest point on the shore where the water can be expected to reach each year, such as in spring flood. During late summer, or in a drought, the actual water level might be lower than the OHWM. On the other hand, during a flood, the actual water level might be considerably higher than the OHWM. The OHWM serves as the dividing line between Wisconsin DNR regulatory authority and county shoreland zoning, and is also the measurement point for building setbacks and the vegetative buffer zone. If there is some question about where the OHWM is located, the County Zoning Administrator or the Wisconsin DNR can set the ordinary highwater mark based on field conditions.

Where does the county ordinance apply?

The Dane County Shoreland Zoning Ordinance applies only to properties in unincorporated towns. If you are in an incorporated city or village, check with your local zoning agency to determine what regulations apply.

In unincorporated areas, the county ordinance creates a series of rings or buffers around each waterway. Depending on how far your project is from the water, different regulations apply.

The closer to the water, the more protective the regulations become.

1. Extended Shoreland Zone : within 1,000 feet of a navigable lake or pond

a. New lots must meet minimum lot size and width standards.

2. General Shoreland Zone: within 300 feet of any navigable water

a. New lots must meet minimum lot size and width standards.

b. Shoreland erosion control permits are required before disturbing any land. Simplified applications are available for small projects.

c. Shoreland zoning permits are required before:

i. Building any new permanent or temporary structure.

ii. Adding on to, or expanding (vertically or horizontally) any existing structure.

iii. Making changes to any impervious surfaces (including buildings, pavement, patios, walkways, etc.). Impervious surfaces cannot exceed the current percentage of the lot, or 15%, whichever is greater.

d. Shoreland mitigation permits are required before covering between 15% and 30% of any lot with an impervious surface.

3. Setback Area: between 35 feet and 75 feet from any navigable water

a. Shoreland mitigation permits are required before:

i. Building any new permanent or temporary structure.

ii. Adding on to, or expanding (vertically or horizontally) any existing structure.

4. Vegetative Buffer Zone: within 35 feet of any navigable water

a. No structures are permitted, except for boathouses, piers and walkways.

b. No permit is required for "routine maintenance" (including lawn mowing) of existing vegetation, as long as you do not disturb any ground, and do not remove any layer of existing vegetation. For example, selective pruning of trees would qualify as "routine maintenance," but removing whole trees would not.

c. Shoreland zoning permits are required before:

i. Removing existing vegetation to create a viewing and access corridor to get to the water.

ii. Building a stairway, walkway or railings, when needed to access the shore.

d. Shoreland mitigation permits are required for:

i. Removing any vegetation, except for viewing and access corridors and routine maintenance.

ii. Building a new, or adding onto an existing, boathouse.

What are the lot design standards?

New lots in the shoreland zone must meet minimum lot widths and area standards, depending on where they are in relation to the shore and whether or not they are on public sewer. Buildings, with the exception of permitted boathouses and walkways, should be a minimum of 75 feet from the ordinary high water mark. The first 35 feet from the shore, except for viewing and access corridors, should be left in a natural state. If your project meets the lot design standards, you will need shoreland zoning permits and (in most cases) shoreland erosion control permits, but you will not need a shoreland mitigation permit.

What is "mitigation?"

State law requires counties to adopt mitigation standards that are proportional to the impact of development on water quality, fish and wildlife habitat and natural scenic beauty. In Dane County, mitigation standards include two components:

A shoreland mitigation permit allows for a wider variety of development options than is possible with only a shoreland zoning permit.

What about wetlands?

Dane County ordinance and state and federal law prohibit most construction, ditching or fill within wetland boundaries. In addition, the Dane County shoreland zoning ordinance requires that all new structures be at least 75 feet from the boundary of any wetland 2 acres or larger. The maps of the Wisconsin Wetland Inventory give a good general idea of the location of wetlands across the state. However, maps are no substitute for a field delineation to determine precise wetland boundaries. Please note that if you are proposing a project that is located close to a mapped wetland boundary, you will need a wetland delineation and a location survey to make sure wetland setbacks are met.

I have a vacant lot that was platted before shoreland zoning went into effect. The lot doesn’t comply with the current ordinance area or width standards. Can I build on it?

Yes, as long as the lot:

  • was created before current minimum lot area or lot width standards were adopted, and;
  • hasn’t been combined, through certified survey, lot-line adjustment or deed restriction with another lot.

Shoreland zoning permits , shoreland mitigation permits and shoreland erosion control permits will apply to any new construction. New construction will have to meet all floodplain regulations, setbacks, wetland buffers, impervious surface limits, vegetative buffer zone protections or appropriate mitigation standards. Variances are not required unless physical limitations of the lot make it impossible to meet either site design or mitigation standards.

I have an existing building that was built before shoreland zoning went into effect. The building is closer than 75 feet to the water and takes up more than 15% of the lot. Are there limits on what I can do to renovate, expand or replace this building?

The county shoreland zoning ordinance makes special provisions for legal, nonconforming buildings and structures that were built before the ordinance went into effect.

County shoreland permits are not required for any of the following:

  • Interior remodelling, structural work or maintenance;
  • Repainting, re-roofing or re-siding;
  • Plumbing or electrical work, or;
  • Any other construction activity that takes place entirely within the current three-dimensional volume of the building and does not disturb any ground.

Note that depending on the type of work being done, town building or driveway permits and county sanitary permits may still apply.

Shoreland zoning permits are required before:

  • Expanding any portion of a building, either horizontally or vertically. New additions should be at least 75 feet from the ordinary high water mark;
  • Repaving, replacing or expanding any impervious surfaces. As long as you don’t change the total percentage of the lot covered by an impervious surface, a shoreland mitigation permit is not required. For example, if your lot currently has 35% of its area covered by buildings, walkways, patios and driveways, you could replace the patio with lawn and expand the driveway, or the building, by an equivalent amount. You could not exceed 35% of the lot (or whatever the current percentage is) in an impervious surface.

Shoreland mitigation permits are required before:

  • Expanding any portion of a building, either vertically or horizontally, into an area closer than 75 feet to the water. Expansions or additions cannot be within 35 feet of the ordinary high water mark.

Shoreland erosion control permits are required before disturbing any ground, whether or not the work is associated with a nonconforming building or structure.

I’m a farmer. Do I need a permit before plowing or harvesting near water?

In most cases, no, as long as your property complies with a recently-approved farm conservation plan. Contact the Dane County Land Conservation Division to see if your farm plan is up to date.

What if I can’t meet any of the ordinance standards or mitigation options?

Most shoreland projects will either meet the basic lot design standards, or can meet performance standards with simple, relatively inexpensive, mitigation practices. In rare cases, unique circumstances, such as extremely small or oddly shaped lots, may make it impossible to meet ordinance standards and still have a "reasonable use" of the property. If you have exhausted your mitigation options, and your project cannot be redesigned to comply with the ordinance, you may be eligible for a variance from the Dane County Board of Adjustment.

Where do I start?

The Zoning Division of the Dane County Department of Planning and Development should be your first stop if you are thinking of doing work near the shore. County zoning staff can review your plans and let you know what permits, if any, you will need. If necessary, zoning staff may refer you to the Land Conservation Division for additional permits or reviews.