The Vilas County Zoning and Planning Committee last week approved an amended resolution to the county’s shoreline zoning ordinance.
The Jan. 2 action wasn’t unexpected and now formally moves the amendment to the full county board when it meets Jan. 28.
The ordinance amendment essentially permits larger boat houses — up to 720 square feet — on Vilas County lakes of more than 500 acres.
There are other zoning regulations that remain, but those two changes provided for in the amendment, along with an expanded ordinary high water mark (OHWM) — or setback — to 35 feet, are the major proposed changes.
The current Vilas County regulation for boathouses pertains to lakes 100 acres or greater in size; restricts boathouse size to a maximum “footprint” of 300 square feet; provides for a five foot setback as opposed to 35 feet; 100 acres or more of lake frontage for a lot; minimal vegetation removal and the use of a boathouse’s flat roof as deck provided there’s railing installed in accordance with the Wisconsin Uniform Dwelling Code.
The zoning committee met Dec. 5, 2019, to conduct a public hearing on the matter, which had been brought forward by St. Germain resident Glenn Schiffmann, owner of Cornerstone Custom Builders in Eagle River.
Dawn Schmidt, Vilas County’s zoning and planning director, said Schiffmann first approached the committee in September with his ideas.
“He just wanted to talk about it with the committee then,” she told The Lakeland Times after the Dec. 5 meeting. “Get a feeling for what he needed to do if he wanted to do this. Whether it would be a special exception, would it be a conditional use. The committee talked about it for awhile and decided it would need to be an amendment.”
Schiffmann didn’t attend last week’s zoning meeting, but at the Dec. 5 public hearing, told the committee he was there on behalf of “multiple people who desire to have larger boathouses” to handle their equipment.
“Boats are substantially more expensive than they were years ago when this ordinance was made,” Schiffmann said then. “And our ordinance doesn’t have an accommodation for larger boats or things of that nature.”
Among items he was proposing was having future boat houses be 35 feet from the Vilas County’s current OHWM of five feet.
“And in moving them back, increase the size of them so they can accommodate the larger boats,” Schiffmann said. “They won’t fit on every lot. There’s hillsides and things like that where larger boathouses just aren’t possible, but when you’re dealing with relatively level or flat lots, your boathouse will be accommodated relatively easily.”
During the course of the public hearing, the zoning committee heard from several individuals present, most of them from the Presque Isle area, with questions and indicating opposition to the changes.
Schmidt also presented letters from six Vilas County townships in opposition as well as the Vilas County Lakes and Rivers Association, Manitowish Waters Lake Association and Vilas County supervisor Marv Anderson of St. Germain, unable to attend the hearing but expressing his opposition.
The committee received letters from the town of Manitowish Waters, which basically expressed neutrality on the issue, and the town of Land O’ Lakes, expressing it was in favor of the changes.
The vote at that meeting was 4-1, with zoning committee member Chuck Hayes, representing Presque Isle on the county board, casting the lone dissenting vote.
“I think we had six town boards who said they were opposed to this ... the people on the Vilas County Rivers and Lakes Association know more than we do about water quality and how development effects water quality,” Hayes said on Dec. 5. “If they don’t know more than we do, we’re in trouble.”
Opening the door
Despite the fact the outcome of the Jan. 2 vote on the amendment wasn’t really in doubt, there was plenty of discussion before the vote.
Vilas County supervisor and former Lac du Flambeau town supervisor Bob Hanson, part of a small contingent from Lac du Flambeau, said he felt this was “a troubling solution to our shoreland zoning.”
“I think we’re opening the door to a lot of potential abuse here,” he said. “These lakes are already under a lot of pressure. We don’t need to add to it.”
He pointed out the state of Wisconsin has already imposed a 100 foot restriction on shorelands.
“That, in itself, is putting a lot more pressure on these lakes we’re going to see if we don’t start drawing a line in stopping the encroachments on our zoning,” Hanson said. “I think that we are going to see deterioration of our lakes and we’re going to see an enormous drop in the presence of tourists and of property values in this area. We need to start drawing the line and this is a place where we can do it.”
Committee chairman Jay Verhulst, an Arbor Vitae representative on the county board and also chairman of the county board’s land and water committee, asked Hanson if he had any data pertaining to the deterioration he spoke of.
“I am aware of the fact that Vilas County lakes, for the most part, have improved water quality every year over the last seven years,” he said.
Hanson didn’t dispute that, but also told Verhulst if a person were to do a Google earth satellite view of Vilas County lakes on a computer, “you can see the green coming in from the shorelines.”
“You can see weed growth coming in from the shorelines on almost every lake,” he said.
“And you’re saying boathouses have an effect on that and not just the natural environment?” Verhulst asked.
Hanson said a boathouse is a good thing in that it gets the boat out of the water.
“However, most people are not going to use a boathouse during the summer,” he said. “We’re gonna have people using it as a temporary residence, a guest house, whatever. and it’s gonna be within 35 feet of the water.”
Hanson was reminded by Verhulst his concerns regarding people living in a boathouse are addressed in the ordinance.
“How so?” Hanson asked.
“They (boathouses) cannot be habitated (sic),” Verhulst told him.
Hanson asked how that would be enforced and used as an example property owners who might have grandkids come to visit and use a boathouse, especially a larger one as provided for in the proposed amendment.
“We’re talking about significantly increasing the size of boathouses,” he said.
Vilas County corporation counsel Jack Albert reiterated for Hanson the county ordinance doesn’t allow for boathouses, whether the 300 square foot type or the proposed 720 square feet, to be used as living quarters.
“It’s for marine use,” he said. “My legal interpretation of that definition is pretty strong. There’s no way somebody can go in there ... if they do and we find out about it, we’d deal with it to the extent that we can.”
Hanson used as an enforcement example speeding on highways and roads isn’t allowed, but on his way to the meeting, someone sped past him.
Committee member Steve Doyen asked if people should be stopped from driving.
“Where do you put an end to this ‘If they might do this’ or ‘They might do that’?” Doyen said. “I mean, every law on the books people can break if they want to. But we’re going to inhibit somebody from doing something because they might do something.”
Hanson changed course, asking why a 720 square foot boathouse would be needed.
“Because of the size of boats they have,” Doyen told him.
“OK,” Hanson said. “And the size of these boats is directly related to the amount of pollution and pressure on these lakes. Do we want to accommodate larger and larger boats, more and more boats and personal watercraft on lakes that are already under more pressure than they can stand?”
Committee member Kim Simac said the committee wasn’t there to say what people could or couldn’t have as far as personal watercraft.
“We said 500 acres,” she said, referring to the size of lake outlined in the proposed ordinance amendment exception. “They’re not gonna have a boat on some of the lakes that can’t handle it, but some of the pontoon boats that are all over the place are huge.”
Lac du Flambeau resident Kay Hoff suggested instead of larger boathouses, people could store their boat in another structure on their property.
“I don’t see that the need for a larger boathouse has to match the need for larger boats,” she said.
A few minutes later, Simac, indicating a little frustration with the way the discussion was going, suggested maybe the size of lake houses themselves be restricted.
“Everybody seems to have a footprint and contributing to it,” she said. “I don’t see ... I mean, the fact you might have a little bigger boathouse on a piece of property now on a bigger lake where there’s a limited amount of them. They can’t have a bigger boathouse, only the one. They could put another garage up top (on their land) to put the boat in if they wanted, but that’s gonna leave the same imprint almost on the property, especially if it’s a narrow lot. It all seems kind of relative. We kind of went through all this at the hearing. It doesn’t seem it’s as a bad a detriment that we may think.”
After Doyen made the motion to adopt the amendment and Simac made the second, Hayes unloaded with reasons for his continued opposition to the proposed ordinance amendment.
“I’ve been on this committee for ... about eight years,” he said. “Obviously over the eight years, there have been disagreements. There have been split votes. That’s the nature of it. But I can’t recall a decision made like this by this committee in eight years.”
In explaining that, Hayes said he couldn’t recall having six different townships, some individuals and lake associations against a proposal as was the case with this one.
“I can’t recall a single person at the hearing saying, ‘This is something we want,’” he said.
Hayes said he wasn’t aware if any of the other committee members had received input, but what he did know was the matter “was precipitated” by Schiffmann at the September 2019, zoning meeting, on behalf of one of his clients who Hayes said no longer wanted to take his boat out of the water after use.
“No longer wishes to store it,” he said. “He wishes to put it in a larger boathouse.”
Hayes said he didn’t recall anyone on the committee ask about any facts such as potential environment effects.
“In fact, Vilas County doesn’t have a formal structure for measuring environmental impacts on any of its developments,” he said. “I had several calls after last month’s hearing all in support of my position.”
Hayes said some of those people who contacted him made allegations “without evidence” a decision on Schiffmann’s request to change the part of th Vilas County ordinance regarding boathouses had been made in September and last month’s public hearing “really wasn’t needed.”
“The committee, or at least the majority, landed on ‘If it’s development, we’re in favor of it’ and ‘The environment really isn’t effected — we’ve got no evidence so it must be OK’” he said, adding what would be helpful not only for the zoning committee but for other committees was a formal system for measuring environmental impact.
“Difficult, complex?” Hayes said. “Sure. Worth doing in a county that depends on its lakes to handle about 80% of its economy? Definitely.”
He reiterated those entities such as the six towns and a lake association along with several individuals who were opposed to the ordinance amendment.
“We’re still going through with it,” Hayes said. “The support you have is from a developer (Schiffmann) with customers who are asking for this rather than taking their boat out of the water. I don’t know that we’ve been faithful to our constituents on that.”
Doyen, also town chairman for Phelps which he said has a few of Vilas County’s larger lakes, also said he’s received no calls on the matter and did understand what Hayes was saying.
However, he said, in addition to environmental considerations, there were property rights considerations.
“That’s why I’m standing where I’m standing on this,” Doyen said.
Simac said she was also looking at the property rights aspect and being involved in agriculture, said she was also concerned about the environment.
“Every time I see a salt truck with the water we have, how come we’re not up in arms about all of that?” she asked. “Sometimes it’s pick and choose on environmental studies. They never did any environmental studies on the bike paths in the county. They just put ‘em in and they’re blacktops that went down in areas that could infringe on our waterways.”
Simac returned to the large house item she mentioned earlier in the meeting, saying when she goes for a boat ride on the Eagle River chain of lakes, she sees large homes with their owners adding on.
“They have the right to do that so what’s the difference, in a way, with a boathouse that somebody has the right to do with their property if they choose ... I don’t see why it’s such a big deal,” she said.
Rejecting the exception
Before Verhulst called the question, Schmidt clarified the towns of Presque Isle, Manitowish Waters, St. Germain, Arbor Vitae and Lac du Flambeau would be able to opt out of what is referred to as “Exception F,” which contains the language for the larger boathouses because they have town zoning capability.
“They can restrict it in their towns also,” she said.
Lac du Flambeau resident Norm Wetzel asked Schmidt to repeat what she said because he and others had been told by the town of Lac du Flambeau “whatever happens here and whatever happens with the action of the county board, it’s a done deal.”
“And Lac du Flambeau has to abide with whatever happens,” he said.
Schmidt said the town of Lac du Flambeau does have its own zoning and does have to allow boathouses at the current 300 square foot size, according to the county ordinance.
“But they do not have to allow this exception,” she said.
“We’ve been told just the opposite,” Wetzel said.
Because committee member Jerry Burkett was absent, the final vote on the county ordinance amendment was 3 to 1, with Hayes once again the dissenting vote.
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at [email protected].