Property owner information



The single most important thing property owners can do to protect scenic character and water quality of your river is to maintain and/or restore natural vegetation along the shoreline.

Natural vegetation:

  • Preserves the scenic quality of the riverway
  • Holds soil in place due to increasingly intensive rain events, wakes, and fluctuating water levels
  • Filters out nutrients, which accelerate algae blooms
  • Slows runoff
  • Provides habitat waterfowl, reptiles and mammals
  • Preserves property values by keeping rivers clean

Scenic easements

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the DNR acquired scenic easements to permanently protect private land adjacent to the six designated Wild and Scenic River segments by limiting land alteration, vegetation removal, building, dumping, and structure placement.

Frequently asked questions

As a property owner, your first point of contact for all development-related questions should be with your local zoning authority. Answers to the questions below are provided in the context of the statewide wild and scenic river minimum standards. Local ordinances may be more restrictive than the statewide standards. Your local zoning official will be able to inform you of other regulations that may apply to your property.

Is my lot within a Wild and Scenic River District?

The DNR maintains an online mapping application that shows the boundaries of each Wild and Scenic River District.

DNR Shoreland Classifications and Special Waterbody Designations

What is the river classification for my lot?

Please see a description of classifications here.

What are urban and rural districts?

Land within the boundaries of cities at the time of river designation were classified as urban districts. In these areas cities administer shoreland zoning standards consistent with the state shoreland rules. Areas outside of city boundaries existing at the time of designation are classified as rural districts and subject to the Wild and Scenic River zoning standards, consistent with the Wild and Scenic River rules. Urban districts are fixed in time and do not expand as cities annex and grow.

What land uses are allowed?

Uses are guided based on what was allowed at the time the river was designated to preserve the scenic character of the river. Common allowed uses include single-family residential, agriculture, campgrounds,  and recreational uses.

My property has a scenic easement on it. How does that affect what I can do?

Please contact the DNR to find out the terms of the scenic easement.

What setback standards apply?

Standards vary depending on the river classification. Check with your local zoning authority for standards for your lot. Structure setbacks from the river range from 100 feet for a recreational river to 200 feet for a wild river. Structure setbacks from the bluffline range from 20 feet for a recreational river to 40 feet for a wild river. A bluff line is the point at which a slope becomes less than 13%. Setbacks for septic tank and drain fields  range from 75 feet for a recreational river to 150 feet for a wild river.

Are there impervious surface limits?

There are impervious surface limits within urban districts and no limits in rural districts. Check with your local zoning administrator.

Are there height limits?

Buildings are limited to a height of 35 feet.

Can I build an accessory structure?

Yes. They are subject to the same setback standards as primary structures.

Can I build an accessory dwelling unit (ADU)?

No. The Wild and Scenic River district is intended to limit density to protect scenic and rural character. In urban districts, ADUs may be allowed if the lot is large enough.

Can I cut vegetation?

Clear cutting of vegetation is not allowed within structure setbacks from the water and bluff. See question on setback standards for specific setbacks. Selective cutting of trees in excess of four inches in diameter at breast height is allowed provided continuous tree/canopy cover is maintained. Selective cutting is allowed to remove diseased or dead trees or trees creating a safety hazard.

Can I grade or alter the topography?

Grading and filling which is not accessory to a permitted or conditional use is not allowed. Allowed activities must comply with best management practices to limit erosion and sedimentation.

Can I build a stairway?

Stairways and lifts may be constructed to accommodate access to the water, provided the disruption of vegetation and topography is minimized.

How can I stabilize my eroding shoreline?

The DNR recommends a natural approach to shoreline stabilization through the establishment and maintenance of natural vegetation. Aquatic vegetation, woody debris and near-shore vegetation are some of the best resources for protecting a shoreline from wave and ice erosion, and also provide important habitat for fish and wildlife.

River and stream erosion is often a natural process that may require consultation with your local soil and water conservation district or watershed district, as other factors may be contributing to the erosion.

When riprap or hard armoring is appropriate, permits can be obtained from the local government and the DNR. It is generally recommended to further stabilize the shoreline with deep rooted and woody vegetation on the landward side of the riprap.

My local government or neighbor is proposing something that seems excessive. What can I do to prevent this?

Each local government is required by state law to administer and enforce their zoning ordinance, including their wild and scenic river (WSR) ordinance. The DNR works with local governments (counties, cities, and townships) to ensure that their WSR ordinance complies with the WSR rules, and to provide them with training and guidance to ensure that they are enforcing their ordinances to meet state standards. Citizens often assume that the DNR has the authority to deny or overrule local decisions. The DNR has the same authority as any other party to appeal local decisions including variances.

Any development or activity that does not comply with the zoning ordinance can only be approved with a variance, which requires a public hearing. Interested parties are encouraged to attend these hearings to voice their concerns and influence public decision-making. Engagement with local officials can be a very effective way to ensure that WSR standards are enforced.




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