Guide to Buying and Improving Waterfront

Draft: A guide for buying and improving waterfront property in northern Wisconsin

Lynn Markham, Center for Land Use Education, 2008

This DRAFT VERSION publication was developed for people who are buying or developing waterfront property. It provides tips for:

· Questions to consider before purchasing a waterfront property

· Choosing a lake or river on which to purchase property

· Choosing a specific waterfront property to purchase

· Developing a waterfront property

1. Our wonderful northern waters

The water’s edge is a busy place. Northern pike, bluegills, bass, and other fish spawn in the shallow water along the shore. Loons, ducks, geese and other water birds nest along the banks. Wildlife such as frogs, otters, and mink live there too. Shoreline areas – on land and into the shallow water – provide essential habitat for fish and wildlife that live in or near Wisconsin’s lakes, rivers and streams. Overdeveloped shorelands can’t support the fish, wildlife and clean water that are so appealing to the people attracted to the water’s edge.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening to many Wisconsin waterways. The problem is poorly planned shoreland development. Bit by bit, the cumulative effects of tens of thousands of waterfront homeowners “improving” their property are destroying one of our state’s most valuable resources – our fragile lakes and streams. [i] (The Water’s Edge) or use text from Mike Meyers about animals along the shoreline

Wisconsin’s public trust doctrine

[See BCLF newsletter item on Public Trust Doctrine]

Wisconsin lakes and rivers are public resources, owned in common by all Wisconsin citizens under the state’s Public Trust Doctrine. It declares that all navigable waters are “common highways and forever free,” and held in trust by the Department of Natural Resources.

All Wisconsin citizens have the right to boat, fish, hunt, ice skate, and swim on navigable waters, as well as enjoy the natural scenic beauty of navigable waters, and enjoy the quality and quantity of water that supports those uses.

Wisconsin law recognizes that owners of lands bordering lakes and rivers – “riparian” owners – hold rights in the water next to their property. These riparian rights include using the shoreline, the reasonable use of the water, and a right to build piers for navigation. However, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court has ruled that when conflicts occur between the rights of riparian owners and public rights, the public’s rights are primary and the riparian owner’s secondary. [ii]

2. Healthy watersheds make healthy lakes and higher property values

The quality of our lakes and streams is ultimately a reflection of how we take care of our land. A watershed is the land area that drains to a lake or stream. Waterfront property owners can play a positive role in maintaining and improving the water quality of our lakes and streams.

How will shoreland stewardship practices affect your pocketbook?

A recent study of over 1,000 waterfront properties in Minnesota found that when all other factors were equal, properties on lakes with clearer water commanded significantly higher property prices.1 In other words, people prefer clean water and will pay more to live on lakes with better water quality. What you and your neighbors do to sustain or improve water quality will improve resale potential. On the other hand, if water quality is degraded, lower property values could result. [iii] (Protecting your waterfront property investment)

3. Questions to consider before purchasing waterfront property

Before you invest in waterfront property take some time to think about your lifestyle and what you want in a waterfront home. The questions below are not exhaustive but designed to get you thinking. More complete checklists are available in Life on the Edge…Owning Waterfront Property. (Contact for your copy.)

· Is it going to be a vacation home? Permanent residence? Rental?

· If it will be a vacation home, how long will it take you to get there?

· Are you looking for a quiet retreat to get away from it all, or a place that is closer to more urban conveniences?

· What types of recreation do you enjoy? Fishing, sitting outside with a cool drink, waterskiing?

· Do you love yardwork? Or would you rather sit back and enjoy the scenery?

Make a list of why you want to live on the lake or river…that will help you determine what kind of property to consider.

4. Ask for advice

· Shoreland restoration consultants are available who can offer information about the property and suggest measures that will benefit the waterbody and the property. Your property values can be increased by proper restoration and/or improvements. First consultations are often free. Consultants may know of available funding for your project. A list of Bayfield County Shoreland Restoration Consultants is at the bottom of this document.

· Consult your County Land and Water Conservation Department.

5. Is this lake or river right for you?

Before you decide where to buy a piece of property, it is a good idea to spend some time in the area and to gather some information about the lake or river. This type of information is available from county conservationists and lake specialists with the Department of Natural Resources. Questions you may want to ask include:

· How’s the fishing?

· How many watercraft and what kind are typical?

· What is the water quality? Is it changing?

· What type of waterbody is it? Knowing the type of waterbody gives you a clue about how much water flushes through to remove any pollutants. See Understanding Lake Data.

· Does the water level fluctuate? How much?

· Does it have a dam?

· What land uses are allowed in the area? Check comprehensive plan, land use plan, and zoning.

· What types of wildlife are commonly seen?

· What is the watershed? (This tells you where the land is that drains to the waterbody)

· What does the lake or river look like in late summer, a prime time for algae blooms?

· Is there a lake or river association? If so, is it a district that levies special taxes? See the Lake List to find out.

· Have invasive species been found in it?

6. Is this waterfront property right for you?

First, take a walk around the property and the neighborhood. Here are a few things to consider:

· How are nearby lots used? Boat landings, parks, restaurants, campgrounds, resorts, and other businesses can result in traffic, people, noise, litter, etc.

· How long will it take to get from the property to shopping, entertainment, medical care, work?

· Do the neighbors live here year round?

· Is this a buildable property? Is it suitable for a septic system? Ask the local zoning office, which usually has an ordinance in place to protect the water.

· Are there any easements, liens or covenants that apply to the property? Liens and easements are recorded by the local government, while covenants are typically held by a homeowners association or the developer.

· If you plan to develop the property, what will the costs be to bring in electric, natural gas/fuel oil, cable TV, telephone? What are the opportunities for renewable energy?

· What are the current taxes?

· If you will live here in the winter, how long does it take before the road gets plowed?

· Is the lake or river bottom sandy or mucky? If you want a sandy swimming beach, look for a lot that has one. Dumping sand in a waterbody is strictly prohibited. Aquatic plants can be removed only in specific areas and only after permits have been issued. Don’t change the lake . . . let the lake change you.

· Do you like the current vegetation or landscaping? Removal may be limited. The key role waterfront vegetation plays in providing habitat for fish and wildlife, and protecting water quality is described in The Water’s Edge.

7. Tips for developing your waterfront property

Take your time before you build. Building a home leaves a foot print on the land and the water that can endure for many years. Thought, investigation and planning can pay big dividends for you and those that follow.

While developing the plans for your site and home, consider:

· What effect will the home have on its natural surroundings?

· Where is the sun at various times of the day and year? Consider heating and cooling, sunsets and sunrises.

· Which way does the water drain when it rains or the snow melts?

· What are the soils like?

· What creatures live near the shoreline?

· Hard surfaces like rooftops and driveways create runoff that may carry eroded soil and fertilizer into lakes and streams. Consider building up, rather than out.

· Siting buildings 100 feet or more from the waterfront or drainage paths minimizes runoff reaching the lake or stream.

· Gravel driveways quickly become compacted, creating nearly as much runoff as paved driveways. Consider a shorter or narrower driveway, or use pervious pavers.

· Lawns often are also compacted and deliver much more phosphorus to lakes and streams than wooded areas. Leave as much area as possible natural and keep in mind that lawns are hard to establish under a tree canopy.

· Preserving trees and vegetation between the house and water can add to the beauty of the property, increase its value, and decrease yard-care chores. Identify areas you want to remain undisturbed.

· Maintaining natural vegetation minimizes erosion. Develop an erosion control plan.

8. Finding a contractor

· Personality match: Can you develop a good working relationship with the contractor? Do your philosophies and interests match?

· Education: Does the contractor keep up with new building standards, techniques, and materials?

· Warranty: Is the contractor willing to warranty the work and for how long?

· References: Ask for professional references and previous clients. You want someone who knows how to build around water, uses erosion controls, is willing to save trees, and understands what permits are needed.

· Check the references: View homes they have built and interview the owners.

· Contract: Have a written contract that covers all details of the building process including deadlines and penalties for non-performance.

9. During construction

· Minimize grading and filling that removes the natural divots where water naturally ponds and has time to soak in.

· Disturb only as much ground cover as necessary for construction to minimize compaction and erosion.

· Fence off areas which are not to be disturbed. Most trees will die if they lose a significant part of their root system. Roots generally extend out as far as the branches.

· Avoid construction during wet seasons.

· Ensure the contractor follows your erosion control plan.

· Cover piles of soil.

· Direct runoff away from disturbed areas to minimize erosion.

· After construction, establish vegetation right away and consider native plants.

Consultants usually offer on-sight inspection of the property at no charge along with suggestions about what species to consider. They can also answer questions about funds available for your project. There are also several sources for native plants and seeds in Bayfield County.

Shoreland restoration consultants in Bayfield County include:

Sarah Boles, Native Plantscapes, Namakagon, 794-2548


Jim Brakken, Shoreland & Upland Enhancements, Cable, 798-3163 or E-mail

Native plants and seeds are available from

Wildflower Woods, Washburn, 373-0214

M & M Greenhouse & Gifts, Barnes, 795-2099

Friends of the Earth Garden Center, Washburn, 373-5044

Important notes:

Permits are required when removing and/or transplanting aquatic plants in Wisconsin surface waters. Help is available from your consultant for the permitting process.

Most herbicides and fertilizers should not be used near wetlands or waters.

Woody debris such as fallen trees, branches, etc., should not be removed from the water. They provide essential cover and habitat for many aquatic creatures.


General References

Life on the Edge…Owning Waterfront Property. 1999. UW-Extension Lakes Program.

Comprehensive guide for waterfront property owners.112 pages. Order at or call 715-346-2116

Shoreland Development Density and Impervious Surfaces: How do they affect water resources? How much is too much for our lakes and streams. 2003. Center for Land Use Education. 19 pages.

Protecting Your Waterfront Investment: 10 Simple Shoreland Stewardship Practices. 2005. Center for Land Use Education. UW-Extension (GWQ044) and Wisconsin DNR (WT-821 2005).

Fishing and lake types

Wisconsin Lakes.

Understanding Lake Data. 2002. UW-Extension and Wisconsin DNR (G3582)

Lake and river organizations

Lake List. UW-Extension Lakes Program.

River and Watershed Organizations. River Alliance of Wisconsin.

Runoff, erosion control and phosphorus

Erosion Control for Homebuilders. 1996. UW-Extension (GWQ001) and Wisconsin DNR (WT-457-96)

Brown Water, Green Weeds. 2001. UW-Extension (GWQ003) and Wisconsin DNR


Native vegetation and habitat

The Waters Edge: Helping Fish and Wildlife on Your Waterfront Property. 2000. Wisconsin DNR (PUB-FH-428 00).

Wisconsin Native Plant Sources. 2004. UW-Extension (GWQ041) and Wisconsin

DNR (WT-802)

Written by Lynn Markham, Center for Land Use Education, 2008.

Reviewed by …

Adapted from Life on the Edge…Owning Waterfront Property.
[i] Life on the Edge…Owning Waterfront Property.

[ii] Wisconsin’s Public Trust Doctrine. Wisconsin Association of Lakes.

[iii] Protecting Your Waterfront Investment: 10 Simple Shoreland Stewardship Practices.