Buying a lake cabin – how about lake frontage and shore land zoning?

Lake Frontage and Shoreland Zoning

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmong the features to consider about the lake frontage include elevation, vegetation, and sand. If you are primarily interested in swimming, then you may be looking for properties with a sandy beach front, or at least, a sandy lake bottom.  If you have small children and want to keep an eye on them while they are playing on the beach, then a level to gently rolling elevation of the home to the lake front will be important. If you are less interested in water activities and want a great view of the lake from your great room, a medium to high elevation will be just right.

When shopping for waterfront property, you should also know about shoreland zoning and the rules that benefit fish, birds, wildlife, and you.

By preserving the “up north” qualities of our lakes and streams, these rules also preserve your property values. Even here, some lakes have a more “urban” feel. Other lakes have a relatively undeveloped feel – even though most of their shoreline is developed. Views are preserved, privacy is preserved, and so are property values.

It’s important to know that certain minimum standards are in place statewide. In some Wisconsin counties, and even on certain lakes and streams, the rules are more strict. Existing homes, of course, are grandfathered in. But if you’re building on shoreland anywhere in Wisconsin, you’ll need to meet these minimum standards:

  • Lot size. Lots served by a public sanitary sewer must have a minimum average width of 65’ and a minimum are of 10,000 sq. ft. “Non-sewered” lots must have a minimum average width of 100’, and minimum area of 20,000 sq. ft.
  • Buffer strip. Clear-cutting of trees and shrubs isn’t allowed in the strip of land from the ordinary high-water mark to 35’ inland. One exception is for a 30’ wide path, for every 100’ of shoreline, down to the water. That allows you to reach the water, have a great view from your living room, and still protect your privacy. (And also, by the way, preserve the view of whoever lives across the lake.)
  • All buildings and structures must be set back at least 75’ from the ordinary high-water mark. Exceptions include piers and boat-hoists. And, if an existing pattern of development exists, some counties may have a “setback averaging” system that allow homes to be built closer to the water. On certain bodies of water, though, setbacks are increased to 125’ – or in rare cases, up to 300’.

WI Lakes and River setbacks
This is just an overview; for details on these and other shoreland zoning provisions, contact the Wisconsin DNR or county officials. Keep in mind, too, that existing homes are grandfathered in. When you buy one, you obviously can’t do much to change the lost size or setback. You can, however, take steps to restore the buffer of natural vegetation along your home’s waterfront.

Don’t try shoreline restoration just because it’s “good for the environment.” Do it if you’d like to increase your privacy, see more birds and wildlife, and catch more fish. (And also, by the way, spend less time mowing your lawn.)

Curious to learn more about cabins and lake homes for sale in NW Wisconsin? Give me a call at 218-590-6634. Or, you can email me at

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.