Buying a lake cabin – how do critical habitat designations affect you?

Critical Habitat Designations – What Are They, and How Do They Affect You?

IMG_0621I recently heard from someone who is thinking of selling his lake home.  He had a few questions for me about something called a “critical habitat designation.”  His lake home was in an area that had received this designation.  Was that a good thing, or a bad thing?  How would it affect the value of his property?  And just what is a “critical habitat designation?”

Here’s a quick overview.  I’ve borrowed part of my explanation from the Wisconsin DNR website; you can find out more at

Our state constitution guarantees that the waters of Wisconsin are held in trust for all citizens.  They belong to everyone, and everyone has a right to enjoy them.  The state, in turn, has an obligation to protect this resource.

Every body of water has areas of critical habitat that are especially important to the overall health of aquatic plants and animals.  Areas are designated as Critical Habitat if they have Public Rights Features, Sensitive areas or both. Public rights features (defined in NR 1.06, Wis. Adm. Code) include the following:

  • Fish and wildlife habitat;
  • Physical features of lakes and streams that ensure protection of water quality;
  • Reaches of bank, shore or bed that are predominantly natural in appearance;
  • Navigation thoroughfares; and
  • Sensitive Areas. Sensitive Areas are defined in Ch. NR 107 as: areas of aquatic vegetation identified by the department as offering critical or unique fish and wildlife habitat to the body of water.

Here’s a key idea to keep in mind. These designations reflect the reality of what’s already there. True, some are based on information that would only become apparent after careful study by trained biologists. Most, however, are based on factors that would be obvious to even the most casual observer.

Suppose, for example, that your lake home is in the corner of a shallow, weedy bay that’s been designated critical habitat because it provides food, cover, and a perfect spawning area for game fish. The entire bay has been designated a critical habitat area. That information can make a home even more attractive—especially if you enjoy fishing.

Even if you don’t know the scientific name of every plant in a bay, you can see that it’s a shallow bay with a fair amount of submerged and emergent vegetation. If you’re also into water skiing, you’ll want to motor slowly out into the main part of the lake before you start skiing.

Nothing is changed by the designation, and you could always have a look for yourself to see what the bay looks like up close. You could even try fishing in front of the dock before you make an offer. Still, the entire bay is now officially an area that’s important for fish. Buyers, this can be a real plus.

This designation also means, however, that the neighbors wouldn’t be granted permission to remove all vegetation from the entire bay and truck in several tons of sand to make a giant swimming beach. In practice, of course, you probably wouldn’t have been granted a permit to do that anyway.

Meanwhile, between the bay and the main part of the lake, there’s a small channel just wide enough for you and the neighbors to take your pontoons through. Your boat traffic seems to keep it clear, even in late summer. But you’re worried that may not always be the case. Plus, a couple of old white pines are leaning out over the channel. If one of them ever fell…

Good news. Critical habitat designations aren’t just for sensitive areas. They also cover “public rights” features like navigation thoroughfares. It turns out the channel has received just such a designation. Buyers can be more confident the channel will be kept open in the future. If you are trying to decide between one or two homes, this sort of information could tip the balance.

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