St. Germain opposes changes to Vilas County boathouse zoning
February 14, 2020
The St. Germain Town Board on Monday took an official stance in opposition to proposed shoreland zoning changes in Vilas County which would allow for larger boathouses.
In September 2019, a request was made to the Vilas County Zoning Committee to allow for exceptions to the county’s current boathouse regulations.
Vilas County supervisor (and St. Germain resident) Marv Anderson was in attendance at Monday’s meeting and provided the board — and audience members — a synopsis of the petition for zoning amendment.
“It is an exception for larger boathouses,” Anderson said. “The exception does not apply to lakes that are 500 acres or less, streams, or rivers ... There are 50 lakes of more than 500 acres in Vilas County.”
“And we have three,” town chairman Tom Christensen said. “Lost (Lake), Big (St. Germain Lake), and Little (St. Germain Lake).”
Anderson laid out more details of the proposed exception.
“The new boathouses shall not exceed a maximum footprint of 720 square feet excluding overhangs,” he said. “The current county zoning is 300 square feet for a boathouse that can be five feet from the ordinary high water mark ... The maximum (area) would be 24 (feet) by 30 (feet). The lot shall have a minimum of 150 feet of frontage width. And it would have a 20-foot side-yard lot-line setback. They shall not be located on slopes greater than 20 per cent. They shall have a 10-foot separation from all other structures. They shall have overhead doors facing the water body with one service door ... as a side entrance. The boathouse cannot be built without a principal residence located on the lot .... A mitigation plan is required ... And a flat roof would be allowed with a railing around it.”
Town supervisor Ted Ritter was in attendance at the September meeting when the request for exceptions was first made, at which time a public hearing was scheduled on the subject for Dec. 5, 2019.
“On Nov. 2, I sent an email out to all the lakes committee members encouraging them to — on behalf of the property owners on their lakes — consider taking action on this at the Dec. 5 public hearing,” Ritter said. “As far as I know, none of the town lakes did respond to it prior to Dec. 5.”
“Following the public hearing, the Vilas County Zoning Committee met and basically agreed to move the application forward; essentially approved it,” Ritter said. “They may have tweaked it a little bit. But they sent it forward to the county board. I don’t know what prompted it, but at that point, a lot more people said ‘Wait a minute! This is horrible! We can’t allow this to happen!’ Now there’s a strong push since then. Most of the St. Germain lakes have met, have talked about it, and have responded.”
The Vilas County Board of Supervisors will meet on Feb. 25 “and very likely make a decision on whether or not to approve the amended boathouse provisions or deny them,” Ritter said. “There are responses that are coming forward now; the opportunity to present them in a public hearing have passed. And when the county board meets ... I doubt very much that the chairman of the board of supervisors will allow public comment.”
Ritter encouraged concerned property owners to make a showing for the county board at the Feb. 25 meeting.
“But certainly, having people in attendance has value,” he said. “Even if they can’t be heard, if they fill the room up, it has an effect.”
‘Horrified by this’
Earlier on Monday, Ritter attended a St. Germain Town Lakes Committee meeting and its board voted unanimously to request the town board to draft a letter to county supervisors expressing opposition to the proposed changes.
At least four different St. Germain lakes organizations have already sent correspondence to the county board, all of which opposed adopting the new exception.
Anderson said six of Vilas County’s 14 incorporated towns “have expressed formally that they are against this petition.”
Christensen then opened the floor for any town residents to state their opinions on the matter. Five spoke against the proposed changes and none spoke in favor.
Len Larsen described himself as a “water enthusiast” and explained he has been a real estate broker in the Northwoods for 42 years.
“I have a lot of contacts here, from the $1.2 million listings right down to the little cabins” he said. “They’re horrified by this. They’re horrified by property value ... They’re very concerned about the visual effects from properties.”
Larsen made predictions based on his experiences in other towns.
“You’re going to see an increase in nutrient runoffs,” he said. “Here’s another thing you’re going to see: massive violations in zoning and you will not be able to keep up in dealing with construction violations ... I saw this on Lake Tom(ahawk) 20 years ago when there was a huge push on Lake Tom to do this. And these guys built their $200,000 boathouses and they said ‘We’ll pay fines forever. We’re not taking them down.’ And that’s exactly what happened on Lake Tom.”
“I don’t see a plus to this,” Larsen continued. “I can’t see anything positive, and I’ve looked at this in so many different ways.”
Christensen said he knows several St. Germain lakefront property owners who have spent thousands of dollars of their own money in shoreline restoration efforts.
“When you have folks on the lakes trying to do those kinds of things, this (boathouse exception) seems like you’re really taking a step backwards from the way we’ve tried to protect our lakes,” Christensen said.
Ritter — the St. Germain Zoning Committee chairman — was asked by an audience member if the town has any potential remedies in case the county board adopts the changes.
“According to (Vilas County zoning administrator) Dawn Schmidt, any town that has its own zoning — as St. Germain does — would have the option of opting out of that in our zoning ordinance,” Ritter said. “But we don’t just make arbitrary changes to the zoning ordinance without going through the public process.”
That process would include discussion and action by the town’s zoning committee, discussion and action by the town board, and a public hearing.
“It’s time-sensitive, but we have to take it one step at a time,” Ritter said. “It has to go through the county review process, and that takes two to three months. So there’s no way — even if we were to start on this tonight — we could have our town zoning ordinance in time to stop some of these if they got started this spring. We can’t move that fast because of the process.”
“Can we do a moratorium quickly?” Christensen asked.
“It’s been done before, so, perhaps,” Ritter responded. “Maybe we won’t need to. Maybe the county will just nix this.”
The town board voted unanimously to draft a letter (or email) declaring its opposition to the proposed changes. That correspondence will be sent to all 21 Vilas County supervisors prior to the county board’s meeting on Feb. 25.