An Oneida County supervisor wants the county to consider requiring larger minimum frontages in the shoreland zone, but to get his way means that minimum-width requirements would have to be imposed on every new subdivision in the same zoning district, off water as well as on water.
During a discussion last week of lot sizes within the shoreland zone, supervisor Jack Sorensen called for the county to be pro-active and to consider imposing a 200-foot minimum width in the county's subdivision ordinance. That ordinance applies in zoned as well as unzoned towns.
"I am not seeking a resolution at the moment, but at some point down the road we have to seriously consider something like this," Sorensen told the committee.
Sorensen said the move was necessary to protect water quality, and especially smaller lakes that can now be divided into 100-foot minimum frontage lots, and he said precedent already existed for action to be taken countywide.
"At one point in time it became necessary to say that every lot off water has to have 50,000 square feet," he said. "We would be taking that another step. Two-hundred feet by two-hundred feet is approximately 1 acre. All we're saying is the minimum width is 200 feet, and the minimum lot size could continue to be 50,000 square feet."
The committee took no action, but zoning director Karl Jennrich said he would research the matter and it could return to the committee later this year or early next year.
To establish larger minimum frontage requirements on lake properties, the county would be forced to apply the minimum width to all properties in the same zoning classification, on or off water, because 2015 Act 55 prohibits counties from being more restrictive in the shoreland zone than NR115, which sets the state's minimum frontage width at 100 feet.
However, according to the DNR, a county may require a larger lot size under a general zoning ordinance or a subdivision ordinance as long as the more restrictive provisions do not only apply within the shoreland zone but to similarly zoned properties throughout the applicable government jurisdiction.
"When Act 55 came through, I told the committee that you may have the ability, if you want, to have bigger lot sizes but it has to apply across the board within your subdivision ordinance," Jennrich told the committee. "You can't have a specific requirement that requires 200-foot riparian frontage width or average lot widths on lakes smaller than 50 acres in size. You can't say, for example, in the town of Stella that all lakes have to have 200 feet of frontage. But you can regulate width, you can say all lots have to have a minimum of 200-feet width or 300-feet width or all lots have to be two-and-a-half acres in size within the single-family zoning district."
A renewed effort
While the committee rejected the concept a while ago, Jennrich said some supervisors have renewed their push.
"When we discussed this maybe a year-and-a-half ago, the committee did not want to require larger lot sizes and 200-foot widths across the board for all properties in, let's say for example, single family residential just to get bigger lake lot sizes on some of these smaller lakes," he said. "But you do have the ability to require larger lot sizes through your subdivision ordinance."
Jennrich said towns can also apply such restrictions in their own subdivision ordinances, and one case involving the Oneida County town of Newbold is in the courts right now, testing the proposition.
"We approved a division on Lake Mildred for a hundred feet of riparian frontage width and average lot width on 20,000 square feet," he said. "We approved it because we didn't believe our ordinance could restrict or prohibit it. Newbold has a subdivision ordinance. They utilized that ordinance to deny that and it went to court."
Jennrich said Newbold had larger lot size minimums and it was across the board.
Jennrich said a 200-foot width would require defining properties to deal with such things as cul-de-sacs and pie-shaped lots, but the bottom line would be maintaining 200 feet of width.
"I think most subdivision ordinances have an average lot width, and even our ordinance has an average lot width, so over the 50,000 square feet or whatever you set for minimum lot size through that square foot area, it has to have 200 feet of width or whatever the magic number is," he said.
The bottom line was, if the county went with 200-foot lot widths, that would mean that every off water lot along with every lake lot would have to be 200 feet, Jennrich said.
"It would be for everything," he said. "You can't say that lake lots will be something because then you're regulating lot size on the water, which is a no no," he said.
Sorensen reminded committee members that one of the principal authors of Act 55, state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst), said this was the route the county could take if it wanted to set larger minimums on the water.
"As I recall, when Mr. Tiffany addressed the county board, he said that was a remedy for lot sizes on water, that if we wanted to go to the subdivision ordinance, that was OK to do," Sorensen said. "I don't think he was advocating it, but he was saying this is your alternative."
Jennrich said the Wisconsin Counties Association has issued a legal opinion to the same effect, and corporation counsel Brian Desmond said the DNR had also advised that it could be done.
Supervisor Mike Timmons wanted to know what would happen with pre-existing lots that didn't meet the standard, and Sorensen replied that they would be grandfathered, which he said would not be a big deal.
"If you look at a real-estate appraisal form, the first thing is legal zoning, and the second box is grandfathered use," he said. "Grandfathered use is so prevalent across this county. Ninety-five percent of the city of Rhinelander, their lots are grandfathered. There is no real stigma to the fact that something may be nonconforming."
Rather, Sorensen said, it's how you treat the nonconformity.
"If you say you can't be within 50 feet of the water or the house has to go if it is within that, that to me is very negative," he said. "But if you say that your home is nonconforming because it is within 50 feet of the water but it can be rebuilt, then what is wrong with the nonconformity?"
Fried pushes back
Supervisor Billy Fried said he was concerned about the committee pushing off in a new direction before the shoreland ordinance had even been finalized. He also wondered what impact the change to a larger minimum frontage would have on property values.
"This discussion came up at some of the public hearings and there was frustration over losing local control," Fried said. "This was presented as a way to possibly take some control and help protect the lakes. The concern I have is that if you go - and let's say I own 1,000 feet on a lake that is always allowed me and I have a real estate value of splitting it into 100s - and now we're saying you have to have 200 by however we configure our subdivision, is that really fair?"
Sorensen said there was no injury to the property owner because if a 100-foot lot was valued at $100,000, a 200-foot lot on that lake would be valued at $200,000.
Fried said that was debatable proposition, and the county had better ways to spend its time protecting the lakes.
"I've always looked at it as there are common goals by pro-property people and pro-environmental people," he said. "We all want to protect the lakes. The question is always how. I'm worried that if we start looking at how we can manipulate [minimum widths], we're opening up a bigger can of worms when we're just trying to get into compliance with what the state has told us, and we should focus, as we have said for the last few years, on education, enforcement, controlling runoff, and things like that. I think our energy is better spent in that direction."
Fried said he was hopeful the state would give the county some tools whereby the county could gain some control over different situations.
But Sorensen wanted to know what would happen in the meantime. He pointed to a recent subdivision of a 30-acre lake into many 100-foot lots, which other committee members agreed was a travesty.
"Are we going to see another 30-acre lake butchered?" he asked. "How many 30-acre lakes are left out there? I can think of a couple of large pieces of property that are on the market right now that have small lakes. Is some southern Wisconsin developer going to come up here, with no regards to what we consider quality of life and the quality and importance of the water, and butcher them? And we're just going to have to sit back and say, 'Well that's what the law is, we're going to have to go along with it.' Or are we going to be proactive on this?"
Sorensen again claimed that, if the minimum lot size on water becomes 200 feet, the property value would go up: "The market as we go forward is going to go along with it."
Still, Fried called for patience lest the committee become too reactive.
"My perception when we were working on the rewrite of NR115 was that the pendulum was over here, and there was a lot of barking down state and they swung the pendulum, in my perception, probably too far the other way," he said. "I don't want us to be so reactive that we end up swinging it back. I think we need to conform to what we are supposed to and then hopefully have some abilities to adjust."
Committee chairman Scott Holewinski said the argument came back to property values and water quality.
"For my retirement, if I have a 200-foot lot, I want to know that I can split that so I can sell two parcels," Holewinski said. "The argument is that 200 feet will be worth twice as much. Well, I don't know."
The other main concern, Holewinski said, was what he called "the little itty bitty" lakes.
"Nobody wanted to see that 30-acre lake chopped up so many times," he said.
Fried said he would like the discussion to move to the full county board, and to have the board direct the committee to consider the change if that is what most supervisors wanted.
"There will be a multitude of ideas we may be directed to take a look at, but at least it would be coming from a majority of the county board," he said. "We could pick and choose a lot of things, but don't you think we should take what we have and find out everyone's feelings and get direction about what they want us to change, if anything."
Sorensen said he thought it was the zoning committee's job to consider such policies.
"I think it is our responsibility as the committee to go forward with ideas on zoning, that it comes from this committee up to the county board," he said. "That's the direction it normally flows. If I were to bring that kind of resolution (on my own), the first thing our chairman would say is, 'That belongs in the zoning committee, send it to that committee,' and that's the process."
The committee ended the discussion at that point without taking action, but Jennrich said he would undertake research, and it would not be surprising to see the discussion revisited in the fall or winter months.
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