RHINELANDER - Speakers from the general public pummeled Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) with opposition to new shoreland zoning rules at an Oneida County Board meeting Tuesday in Rhinelander.
Story By Ben Meyer
"Act 55 is a good example of how our state government is moving towards a state of anarchy," Karl Fate told Tiffany, referring to the state budget bill that included the shoreland zoning changes. "This law is a mess."
Many in Northwoods counties feel the legislation stripped their ability to protect their lakes and streams. The language, which Tiffany inserted into the state budget passed in July, disallows counties from keeping shoreland zoning ordinances that are more stringent than the looser state rules. This change means that, in some cases, structures could be built nearer to the water, shoreland could be divided into smaller lots, and rules regarding vegetation would be relaxed. Opponents of the change feel it could harm water quality, the natural beauty of the Northwoods, and even tourism in the region.
"A man wants to do what he wants to do, and it doesn't impact me, that's fine," said Dan Pagel, who lives on a lake in the Minocqua area. "But this will impact my lake. I think that's part of my property rights that you're taking away."
On the other hand, Tiffany argued that property owners benefit from the legislation, which gives them more freedom to build on, manage, and maintain their own lands.
"We want to be protective of the environment, but we also want to protect people's private property rights," Tiffany said.
Tiffany had requested a spot on the Oneida County Board's meeting agenda to discuss the state budget and its impacts. Observers and participants, who mostly opposed Tiffany's shoreland changes, packed the boardroom.
County board supervisors seemed to know Tiffany would face heated oppositon.
"Sen. Tiffany, I admire your courage in coming to see us today," said Supervisor Tom Rudolph.
Tiffany couldn't even count on support from fellow Republican Jack Sorensen, also a member of the county board. Sorensen described himself as a man who agrees with Tiffany 95 percent of the time.
"When I say I'm a Republican, there's nothing more fundamental, Tom, to the Republican Party than local control," Sorensen said.
Many speakers felt that prohibiting counties from implementing stricter shoreland zoning rules eroded control for local governments.
Tiffany framed the issue in different terms.
"When any unit of government--be it local, state, or federal--takes someone's private property rights, I think that's wrong," he said.
"I live on a lake and I'm a property owner, and I believe part of my rights are to keep my lake like it was when I bought it," Pagel responded, later on.
The overflow crowd often grumbled and groaned audibly when Tiffany spoke. Nonetheless, he maintained that he was acting in a way his constituents wanted.
"Sometime, you should travel with me, and see the comments that I hear in regards to this from the other side of the issue," he said, responding to a question from Supervisor Bob Mott.
Tiffany was asked why he put the provision in the wide-ranging state budget instead of introducing it as separate legislation, which likely would have ensured that it would receive more thorough consideration.
Tiffany explained that he had started a legislative process in 2011 to tweak shoreland zoning rules, and thought he had gained consensus from stakeholders, until the DNR backed out of the agreement.
"I believe my constituents elect me to get results in Madison," Tiffany said. "If I can't do it the normal means, or I'm stymied in that way, then I need to find another way. I had to go to Plan B, because I can tell you that my constituents expect me to follow through."
Many people at the meeting seemed less than pleased by that explanation, however. Several county boards, including Oneida County's, had passed resolutions opposing the shoreland zoning changes while they were being considered.
"All of these counties, with all of these duly elected supervisors, representing all of these folks that live and vote here said no to this," said Fate, an opponent of the provision. "It still became law."
Now counties, including Oneida County, take on the task of rewriting their ordinances to comply with state law. In many cases, changing their ordinances will require softening their shoreland zoning regulations. Officials expect it to be a complex and potentially confusing process.
"Where do we go from here?" said Oneida County Planning and Zoning Director Karl Jennrich. "WDNR may have answers to 27 pages of questions from counties on August 31, 2015. I really, really hope that's the case."