Hildebrandt fears impact of shoreland zoning changes

Changes in shoreland zoning regulations contained in the current state budget passed last year and signed into law by Governor Scott Walker have the potential to damage water quality on many of Ashland County’s most scenic lakes, said Ashland County Zoning Administrator Larry Hildebrandt.

Hildebrandt said the changes contained in Act 55 Motion 520 could result in dramatically increased development pressure on some of he county’s environmentally fragile lakes.

“It hasn’t happened yet, but I think people aren’t aware of the changes and what they mean,’ he said Tuesday.

Nevertheless, Hildebrandt said the changes would have impacts on the lakes.

“Definitely,” he said “I’m sure they will.”

The changes are among the most dramatic ever enacted in the area of shoreland zoning. Before the act, each county had wide-ranging authority to enact zoning regulations that were tailored to the individual environmental requirements of the various lakes in area such as shoreland buffer zones, setbacks and lot size.

With a stroke of the governor’s pen, those county regulations were swept away and a single one-size-fits all statewide zoning regulation was put into place.

The new law prohibits any county’s zoning regulations from being any more restrictive than the state‘s minimum lot size of 100 feet of frontage by 200 feet deep. In so doing, it eliminated all of the state’s county lakes classification systems that set a minimum size based on the size and type of lake, weighting the classification based on the lake’s environmental fragility and vulnerability to development.

“On some of our lakes we had a 250-foot wide requirement,” Hildebrandt noted.

The change now means that there is nothing stopping property owners with lots wider than 200 feet from subdividing their property, increasing the number of structures on the late, and increasing the burdens the lake faces from development, such as failing septic systems, increased clearing for view corridors and the like.

“It also means that property owners can now build gazebos and boathouses wherever they want,” Hildebrandt said.

Hildebrandt was especially wary of boathouses constructed close to the water’s edge. He said in many cases, they never housed a single canoe but were deliberately build as stealth visitor cabins.

“They start by running power to the building, and then there is a cot in there,” he said.

Because interior development isn’t something that is easily visible from the outside, it’s easy to put in interior walls and insulation, adding a floor and all the other amenities of an “informal” cabin while still calling it a boathouse.

“With a county where you have one person being the zoning administrator, who has other responsibilities with private sewers, subdivisions, flood plain, you are never going to get caught up with it,” he said.

One of the goals of the 75-foot conforming building zone was to gradually phase out structures within the non-conforming zone. That was made much more difficult in 2013 when legislation killed the “50 percent” rule that limited repairs to structures within the non-conforming zone to 50 percent of the appraised or market price of the structure.

Under the new law, property owners can completely demolish their old structures and rebuild with new ones, so long as they are within the same footprint as the old structure.

“In some cases, they would even be able to build a second floor, as long as the building was no more than 35 feet tall,” he said.

In Ashland County, the changes of Act 55 marked the end of a process of developing shoreland zoning that first began over 40 years ago.

“Ashland County first adopted shoreland zoning in 1971,” he said, noting that the ordinance has been amended over a dozen times.

“We kept fine tuning it to deal with issues like setback averaging, which we didn’t allow, and boathouses, which we allowed, but required to be moved back 75 feet.” The long-term goal was to protect the water quality and resources.”

Hildebrandt said the new shoreland protection ordinance has some good things in it, but he said he feared its negative impacts.

“The area from the ordinary high water mark back 75 feet was essentially a structure-free zone,” he said. “Now there will be boathouses and gazebos. It will be an enforcement nightmare. The development pattern will change dramatically.

“We don’t have any areas like Lake Geneva where they say eventually there will be so many boats and cabins on the lake that they say all the boats will have to go around in the same direction. We have some beautiful lakes, and places like Lake Galilee the shoreline buffer zones are intact, the view corridors are what they should be, the houses are all back 75 feet, they are all hidden. That could all change.”

Hildebrandt said that he had worked his entire career to protect the county’s resources.

“It is really a shame to see what has happened,” he said. “It’s the worst.”