Proposed pier rules upset landowners
Written by Wisconsin State Journal   
Sunday, 04 December 2005 12:03

Legislators are being swamped with more angry phone calls from their constituents than they can remember and the Department of Natural Resources is buried beneath a pile of letters that would impress Santa Claus.

The issue? The fate of our climate, perhaps? The many threats to our forests, prairies, wetlands?

Actually, no. At issue here is something even more near and dear to many in Wisconsin - the future of the party pier.

The Natural Resources Board this week will take up one of the most controversial proposals it has dealt with in recent years, according to agency officials.

It will consider and vote on rules that would limit the size of new piers on the state's lakes and require more rigorous permitting of thousands of existing piers, especially those that are in excess of 200 square feet, the so-called party piers.

A recent survey by the DNR showed there are about 187,000 piers on the state's lakes and rivers.

And people, apparently, really care about their piers.

"All of our offices are being inundated with e-mails and phone calls," said Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford, chairman of the Assembly's Natural Resources Committee. "I can't think of an issue - except maybe for hunting mourning doves - that we've had as many contacts on."

The issue has become, as such issues do, about more than piers.

For the DNR, it has proven another difficult exercise in balancing the rights of private property owners with the broad rights of access to public waters granted to everybody by the state constitution, specifically the Public Trust Doctrine.

The Legislature called for the rules in the 2004 Job Creation Act, which streamlined several state environmental regulatory programs.

But when the proposed rules were released last year, they caused an uproar among lakeshore property owners (and the legislators who represent them) and groups such as the Wisconsin Realtors Association. Opponents said the rules would outlaw too many piers now on the state's lakes. In fact, 51 percent of the piers on Madison's Lake Monona would require permits under the proposal, according to the DNR.

The latest version of the proposed pier rules was released late last week. It will be up for action before the Natural Resources Board at its monthly meeting in Madison on Wednesday.

Proposed rules

Here's what those rules would do:

Require that piers be a maximum of six feet wide with moorings allowed for two boats for the first 50 feet of shoreline frontage and one for each 50 feet thereafter. The pier can extend into the water as far as needed to moor the owner's boats or to the three-foot water depth, whichever is greater. The DNR estimates that about 85 percent of the state's piers meet these requirements and would need no permit.

Allow piers 200 square feet or smaller and built before January 2004 to be grandfathered, meaning they would be allowed even though they violate the new rules. Owners of such piers will not have to change their piers but will have to go through a free registration process. About 24,142 piers will fall into this category, according to the DNR.

Provide a means for owners of piers bigger than 200 square feet, about the size of a typical living room, to keep their pier by making it smaller or applying for a one-time individual permit for $300.

Party piers

While the great majority of piers will not be affected by the new rules, the rules do target the large party piers on some popular lakes, especially in northern Wisconsin.

The DNR, for example, came across one pier that was 1,152 square feet and included a wet bar, a barbecue area, a swing set, and a completely enclosed swimming area.

"If someone lived next to a state park and built a deck out over state park land, we would have a problem with that," said DNR Secretary Scott Hassett.

But those who are concerned about the new rules argue that they are too restrictive when it comes to new lakeshore homes.

Dan Schultz, who owns a home on Lake Monona and is the incoming president of the Yahara Lakes Association, said the group is concerned about the impact of the new rules on home values and argues the size restrictions are too tough on those who build new homes.

"We know there is a balance between riparian rights and private property rights," said Schultz. "But there is a lot of value in these homes. . . . This will affect the value of homes going forward from now."

Under Wisconsin's Constitution, the state's waters belong to everyone. Thus, the dilemma with piers, especially those that block access and impede navigation.

But there is more than law involved, according to the agency.

Detrimental impact

A recent study conducted by the DNR showed that piers can have a detrimental impact on the ecology of a lake by shading areas and preventing the growth of plants upon which fish feed and depend for cover.

Increasingly biologists are recognizing the importance of the shoreline area to a lake's health. And with more lakeshore being developed, undisturbed shoreline is rapidly disappearing. Those areas where the water meets the shoreline are the areas, called littoral zones, where fish spawn and feed.

"People will say that it is a big lake, so what's the big deal about piers," said Todd Ambs, the director of DNR's water program. "But the littoral zones are necessary for fish. It's critical we protect those."

Some legislators, including Gunderson, were so upset with the DNR's proposed rules - especially the provisions that require permitting for some of the large piers - that they proposed their own pier legislation. That law, Assembly Bill 850, would exempt all piers built before January 2004, no matter how big they are.

"I don't think anybody expected that the DNR was being given authority to go after piers already built," said Gunderson at a hearing Thursday on the proposed bill.

But Hassett, testifying against the bill, said there has to be some way to regulate the big piers. The proposed Assembly bill doesn't do that, he added.

"It should be called the "party platform protection act," Hassett said.

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