Know Local Shoreland Zoning Before You Buy Lakefront

One can get caught up in the emotions of buying lakefront real estate. It's an emotional process, possibly even stemming from fond childhood memories. You see a place that reminds you of the days gone by, and you want to jump on it. It's a dream come true, until you want to make the exact changes you want and realize, the hard way, that your changes are not permitted by local regulations.


Do your homework before you make the purchase. You must have some foresight about what you may want to do with the property in the future, and check with your county zoning administration or agency to see if what you are interested in doing is legal. The activities you may want to do on that lakefront property are regulated to protect the resources and other adjacent property owners.


Grant it, some of those regulations are quite erratic and erroneous, but you have to play by the rules or it could wind up costing you a lot of money, trouble, and headaches. There are laws that minimize the amount of erosion. There are sanitary regulations and zoning ordinances that set buffer standards between your house and the water. Where you purchase your lakefront real estate, you may not even be able to cut down a tree. Where I reside in Wisconsin, I know lakefront property owners who have been fined by a county for cutting down a single tree. If you are planning on purchasing lakefront real estate with drastic changes in mind, then you must study the setback requirements. You'll need to know how far all buildings/structures must be set back from the ordinary high water mark. Once you get your hands on a copy of the setback requirements, you can then determine if a lakefront property you are considering to purchase is conforming or nonconforming. And, you can find out if it is legally or illegally nonconforming.





Recently, I knew someone who built a deck off his lakefront cabin. The deck expanded to within 20 feet of the ordinary high water mark. They did not get a permit to place the deck, and they probably would not have been granted the permit if they would have applied. When they sold the house, the buyers did not do their homework and found themselves in a situation where they were forced by the county to remove the deck. Ironically, the deck was one of the main reasons why they purchased the property. Very unfortunate situation, but you can only feel sorry for them to a certain degree. They should have been more informed. One thing I have learned is that it is very difficult to bring something into compliance after the fact. Most local zoning agencies show no sympathy. If you screw up, you'll pay the price, and it's a very hard and expensive lesson. It's usually a battle you can't win. In the next blog post we'll dive into how you can find the resources you need to make lakefront property buying decisions and what you need to know about sensitive shorelands.