Sensible shoreland lighting

Preserve the beauty of the night with Sensible shoreland lighting

Many of us can remember sitting on a dock on a crystal clear summer night, the water as flat as glass, the inky black surface mirroring the sky, the great white Milky Way, a falling star tracing a path across the heavens.

“Unfortunately, this precious part of our heritage, the outdoors with only the light of the moon and stars, is fading away,” says David Liebl, University of Wisconsin-Extension waste reduction specialist. “Dusk to dawn lights obscure our view of constellations, meteor showers, planets and the landscape lit by the moon.”

Many children now see the wonders of the night sky only in pictures or at planetariums. The fading away of the night sky is an issue in cities, in the countryside and in developing waterfront communities.

“The rising cost of waterfront property in Wisconsin provides ample evidence of the importance of the shoreland environment to the people that live along it,” explains Bob Korth, UW-Stevens Point/Extension lakes management specialist.

During the daytime this environment is heavily used for recreation. Artificial lighting allows us to engage in nighttime activities that would be impossible or unsafe under normal nighttime conditions. Whether it’s boating, fishing or simply sitting on the porch to read, our enjoyment of the night is enhanced by the use of artificial light.

“At the same time, our rivers and lakes at night provide a quiet open dark space that gives us privacy and an opportunity to enjoy the heavens,” explains Korth. “Balancing the ability to see at night with the desire to preserve the beauty of the night is the goal of sensible shoreland lighting.”

Sensible lighting can minimize the three most serious problems along shorelands: glare, light trespass and sky glow. “The first principle of good lighting is to illuminate only what we wish to see,” adds Liebl. “When we see light from a fixture itself rather than what the fixture is meant to illuminate, we are observing glare.”

Light trespass is a light fixture on one property that illuminates an adjacent or nearby property. Much of our exterior lighting shines directly upward, causing the sky above our cities to glow and washing out our view of the dark night sky.

Sensible shoreland lighting does its intended job well, with minimum adverse impact on neighbors and the environment. Liebl and Korth offer the following suggestions for sensible shoreland lighting.

  • Provide adequate light for the intended task, but don’t over-light. Choose lights that meet your needs without lighting the entire neighborhood.
  • Glare is both the most common lighting problem and one of the easiest to detect and fix. Eliminate glare by shielding light fixtures so the direct rays of light cannot reach our eye.
  • Use full cut-off lighting fixtures to minimize glare. Full cut-off means that no light is emitted above the horizontal.
  • Retrofit existing fixtures with shields to reduce glare. In some cases, small pieces of aluminum sheeting fitted to the fixture will suffice.
  • Use fixtures with high-efficiency lamps, while still considering the color and quality of the light they produce.
  • Avoid dusk to dawn security lights. A moving person will be more noticeable to you and your neighbors when the lights suddenly come on. All night yard lights often just make it easier for prowlers to find their way. A more effective approach to security lighting is motion detectors.

When illuminating signs for advertising, position the lights above and in front of the sign, keeping the light aimed at the sign surface.

“Eliminating glare and light pollution saves money while reducing our impact upon our neighbors and creatures of the night,” adds Korth.

Bayfield County has regulations on shoreland lighting. Contact the Planning & Zoning Dept at 373-6138 or


The Wisconsin Public Trust Doctrine 

Three separate but related articles by Roger Dreher, Past President of BCLF


In this article we will discuss the “Public Trust Doctrine” and the following questions:

1. What is the public trust doctrine?
2. How is the doctrine defined in Wisconsin law?
3. What rights in surface waters belong to the public?
4. Do the rights of the public end at the waters edge?

The public trust doctrine is the legal foundation for statutes, regulations, ordinances and court decisions which affect activities on and in the open water, near shore areas and on the shorelines. In summary, the doctrine holds that the public owns the waters of the lake and the lake bed, and the state has a responsibility to preserve and protect the public interest in these waters.

The public trust doctrine is based on provisions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which became part of the Wisconsin Constitution (Article IX, paragraph 1). Over the years, many statutes and court cases clarified the meaning of the doctrine. The Water Resource Act of 1965 extended the public trust doctrine to include shore lands. The land mark Wisconsin Supreme court decision in Just v. Marinette (1972) upheld regulation of shore lands because the condition of the water body is affected by the condition and uses of the adjoining shore land areas.

Initially, the doctrine protected commercial uses of lakes and streams such as for navigation and log transportation. Subsequent statutes and court decisions expanded the rights of the public to include the following uses:
– Commercial and recreational navigation
– Water quality
– Fishing and hunting
– Harvesting plants and their fruits
– Swimming
– Enjoyment of natural scenic beauty
– Other recreation on water or ice.
The public rights do not include access to the water over private lands.

Those who own land adjoining public waters have certain rights to use their lands and the adjacent waters. These riparian rights will be discussed in another article.

Today the public trust doctrine is important for three major reasons: it gives the state authority to regulate the waters and shore lands; it requires that the state act to promote and preserve the public trust; and it defines state ownership of water bodies.

To learn more about the public trust doctrine see the University of Wisconsin-Extension publication G3622, Wisconsin Water Law: A Guide to Water Rights and Regulations, second edition (2001). This publication is available from the local UW-EX office or from Cooperative Extension Publications, 45 N. Charter Street, Madison, WI 53715.

Riparian Rights
In this article we discuss “riparian rights” and their relationship to the rights of the public under the public trust doctrine. The article addresses the following questions:
1. What is a “riparian”?
2. What rights does a riparian have to use of the waters and shore lands?
3. What happens if the exercise of riparian rights creates a conflict with public interests?

A “riparian” owns property adjacent to waters which are owned by the public and subject to the public trust doctrine. The riparian rights doctrine provides that owners of such property have an equal right with other owners to the reasonable use of the water and their land.

In most instances, riparian rights in the waters of a lake end at the ordinary high water mark (OHWM). However, the riparian has exclusive right to the shore for purposes of access down to the water™s edge regardless of its location relative to the OHWM. The exclusive access to the shore line was confirmed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Doemel v. Jantz (1923). It confirmed the principle “If your feet are wet, you are not trespassing”.

Riparian rights are defined in Chapter 30, Wisconsin Statutes and include the following:
– Right to use the water for domestic, agricultural or industrial purposes
– Right to access to the water for boating, swimming and recreation
– Right to trapping and harvesting
– Right to construct piers and similar structures
– Ownership of natural additions (accretions) to the shore line.

These rights are subject to two major restrictions. First, the use must be “reasonable”. Whether the use meets this test is decided on a case-by-case basis and will depend on how it affects other riparian owners and the public interest in the lake. Second, riparian rights are subject to the paramount rights of the public under the public trust doctrine and federal, state and local laws and regulations. These laws and regulation may prohibit some activities and require permits for others including dredging, filling, grading, construction of some kinds of piers and placing fish cribs.

The statutes, laws and regulations on riparian rights are designed to balance the private and public interests in the water and shore lands. When these interests conflict, riparian interests become secondary to the public interests. In State v. Bleck (1983) the Wisconsin Supreme Court held “such (riparian) rights are still subject to the public’s paramount right and interest in navigable waters.”

For more information on riparian rights see the University of Wisconsin-Extension publication G3622, Wisconsin Water Law: A Guide to Water Rights and Regulations, second edition (2001). This publication is available from the local UW-EX office or from Cooperative Extension Publications, 45 N. Charter Street, Madison, WI 53715. Legal Basis for Shore Land Zoning


Legal Basis for Shore Land Zoning

In previous articles, we discussed the public trust doctrine and the rights of “riparian” property owners. In summary, the rights of the public to the waters and use of them have precedence over some rights of the shore land owners. This situation creates potential conflicts between these competing interests. State laws, regulations and ordinances have been passed which define what shore land owners can do and not do on their property.

Zoning is not a new concept. For over 150 years, our courts have consistently held that the Constitution allows for public regulation of private land. The landmark United States Supreme Court case Euclid v. Ambler Realty (1926) upheld the basic constitutionality of local zoning.

Shore land zoning places limitations on lands located within 1000 feet of a lake, pond or flowage and within 300 feet of a river or stream. Wisconsin Statutes paragraph 59.692(1m) requires shore land zoning to “promote the public health, safety and general welfare” and to advance “efficient use, conservation, development and protection of the state’s water resources”. Wisconsin Statute paragraph 281.31(1) establishes the purposes of shore land zoning to “further the maintenance of safe and healthful conditions; prevent and control water pollution; protect spawning grounds, fish and aquatic life; control building sites, placement of structures and land uses; and reserve land cover and natural beauty.”

In State v. Kenosha County Board of Adjustment (1998) the Wisconsin Supreme Court found that “The basic purpose of a shore land zoning ordinance is to protect navigable waters and the public rights therein from the degradation and deterioration which results from uncontrolled use and development of shore lands”. The decision affirmed the finding in Just v. Marinette County (1972) that shore land zoning may limit certain changes in the natural character of the land near our waters because of the interrelation between that land and the adjacent waters.

Various statutes require counties and municipalities to enact shore land zoning ordinances and define responsibilities for administering and enforcing those laws. See Wis. Stats. 59.692, 61.351, 62.231 and 281.31. The DNR administrative rule NR 115 implements the statutory requirements. NR 115 requires counties and municipalities to enact shore land zoning ordinances and establishes certain minimum requirements. It also authorizes the DNR to adopt ordinances for a county or municipality that fails to adopt an ordinance or adopts one which does not meet the minimum standards.

NR 115 establishes certain minimum standards for development on shore lands outside incorporated municipalities. These include minimum lot sizes, maintaining a buffer strip and vegetation, building set backs from the water and regulation of non conforming structures. Counties may enact ordinances which are more restrictive than the minimum requirements of NR 115. If shore land subject to regulation under NR 115 is annexed by a municipality NR 115 standards continue to apply to that land.

The Bayfield County Shoreland Zoning Ordinance is available on the website: Copies may be purchased from the zoning office (715) 373-6138. There is a free packet of information for shore land owners “Protecting Your Lake Shoreline Property” also available from the zoning office.

For a succinct discussion of zoning and its relation to land use planning, see Also see UWEX publication G3622, Wisconsin Water Law: A Guide to Water Rights and Regulations. This publication is available from the local UWEX office (715) 373-6104, or from UWEX Cooperative Extension Publications, 45 N. Charter Street, Madison, WI 53715, phone (608) 262-3346.