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April 5, 2020

2/18/2020 7:30:00 AM
Resolution would reduce shoreland wetland setback in Oneida County
Holewinski: Stricter 2018 buffer potentially creates thousands of nonconforming homes

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

A contentious issue is headed to the county board today - a resolution that would reduce the county's shoreland wetland setback from 15 feet to five feet.

Supporters of the resolution, which was forwarded to the county board from the zoning committee on a narrow 3-2 vote, say the 15-foot setback potentially creates thousands of nonconforming structures and denies property owners substantial and reasonable use of their land.

It's likely to be contentious not only because of the narrow zoning committee vote, but because some environmentalists are opposing it and at least one county board member has raised questions about it.

The proposed setback would only apply to wetlands in the shoreland zone outside the city of Rhinelander, prohibiting grading and other land disturbance activities closer than five feet from a shoreland wetland, though elevated walkways would be permitted. Grading and other land disturbance activities closer than 25 feet to a shoreland wetland would require silt fencing.

According to the resolution, the county pushed the buffer back by 10 feet in 2018 - from five to 15 feet - during a push for more restrictive shoreland wetland protections, but did so without fully understanding the impact to property owners.

Zoning committee chairman Scott Holewinski, who supports the less restrictive setback, says the new requirement, which has been in place for slightly less than two years, has had unintended consequences.

More nonconformity in the county is one of those consequences, Holewinski says.

Between 2004 and 2018, Holewinski says, Oneida County had a five-foot setback, during which time many lots were created under the five-foot ordinance. Specifically, he says, 2,325 lots were created during that time, and all structures built legally within 15 feet of a shoreland wetland during those 14 years became nonconforming in 2018.

"Nobody studied a wetlands map to determine how many buildings built during those 14 years of a five-foot setback are now considered nonconforming," he said. "Pull up a wetlands map and look at how 10 more feet has impacted a landowner's use of his property."

Basically, Holewinski says, the new setback took 10 feet away from those property owners in the name of protecting wetlands.

The thing is, he maintains, under the resolution, silt fencing would be required for all land disturbances less than 25 feet from a shoreland wetland, and, if the fencing is installed and maintained properly, there's no more impact at five feet than at 15 feet.

Under the resolution, installation of silt fencing would have to conform to the standards and specifications outlined in the Wisconsin Construction Site Best Management Practices Handbook.

While wetlands might not be affected by returning to a five-foot setback, Holewinski said, property owners will continue to be impacted if the county doesn't make the proposed change.

"How many now won't be able to get to the buildable site because of the (15-foot) setback?" he asked. "How many will have to build smaller houses because of the setback?"

Moving the setback from five feet to 15 feet chewed up 10% of a 100-foot lot, Holewinski says.

Add in lakebed determinations and ordinary high water mark setbacks, and the more restrictive wetland setback substantially reduces a property owner's ability to use his or her property, the resolution asserts.

Holewinski points out that the setback pertains only to grading - no disturbances of trees and soils, essentially no shovels in the area. And while he says it would be possible to set a slab at five feet and overhang a building over the wetland as long as the five-foot setback wasn't disturbed, most often the setback would actually require structures to be farther back than five feet.

"If a person wants to dig a basement, he would have to be about 15 feet from the wetland so that it doesn't cave in and the five-foot setback violated," he said. "At a 15-foot setback, you have to be about 25 feet from a wetland, and you lose that buildable area."

The bottom line is, Holewinski says, the 15-foot setback is needlessly restrictive.

"Pull up the county website and overlay the wetlands around Pelican Lake and see how moving from five feet to 15 feet has taken away buildable area to lots that haven't been built on yet or even if someone wants to put an addition on," he said. "As long as the silt fence is properly installed and maintained, there is no more impact at five feet versus 15 feet."

Holewinski also points to wetland setbacks in surrounding counties, saying they suggest Oneida County's 15-foot buffer is too restrictive.

Indeed, he says, eight of the nine counties adjacent to or near Oneida County have no wetland setbacks at all - the setback is zero in Iron, Vilas, Forest, Marinette, Marathon, Lincoln, Taylor, and Price counties.

Only Langlade County has a 25-foot shoreland wetland setback.

Raining questions

But others have raised questions.

Tom Jerow, who worked for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for 34 years and is a member of Wisconsin Green Fire's board of directors, opposed the resolution at a public hearing and said Green Fire should vet the proposal.

Green Fire is an environmental group established in 2017 to respond at the state and national level to developments that the group says threaten science-based practices and long-term vision in natural resources management.

The group says its members have extensive experience in natural resource management, environmental law and policy, scientific research, and education, and come from government, non-governmental organizations, universities and colleges as well as the private sector.

Supervisor Bob Mott has also raised questions, and others want Holewinski to site specific research that a less restrictive setback would not have negative impacts on wetlands.

At the zoning committee hearing, the vote to forward the resolution to the county board was 3-2, with supervisors Billy Fried and Mike Timmons joining Holewinski in support of moving it to the county board, while Jack Sorensen and Ted Cushing voted no.

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at

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