Republican lawmakers fought back Tuesday against attacks on proposed "private property rights" laws that promised a sweeping array of new limits on state authority to protect wildlife, water quality, public access to shoreland, as well as local power over how industry affects residents.

Assembly Bill 600 would make dozens of changes to state laws governing lakes and wetlands, while Senate Bill 464 would roll back local government control of shoreland and other development.

Environmental groups are using scare tactics against AB 600, but the lawmakers must rein in impractical requirements the state Department of Natural Resources has imposed on land owners, said bill author Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake.

“I hope you can all see behind the hyperbole, past the hyperbole, and take the side of the hard-working property owners,” Jarchow told the Assembly Committee on Environment and Forestry. “It is imperative that we assert legislative supremacy.”

Critics questioned provisions that would allow property owners to extend their property lines over what is now considered publicly-owned lake bed in cases where someone pushed back the waterline with rocks, soil or other material before 1975, even if it was done illegally.

The bill also eases restrictions on construction on lake beds, extension of piers into lakes, reconstruction of boathouses, filling of wetlands and dredging of lake shallows.

Committee member Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, criticized provisions that would create a general permit allowing lakefront owners to dredge 30 cubic yards -- enough to fill several dump trucks -- each year and elimination of individual plan reviews for dredging and construction on lake beds.

“For a lot of people this looks like a special interest Christmas tree,” Mason said.

AB 600 was roundly criticized by hunting, fishing and conservation groups as eroding safeguards for lakes, streams and wetlands that provide wildlife habitat and recreation while controlling flooding and purifying groundwater.

Kerry Schumann, executive director of Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said the legislation goes too far.

“They are putting the wishes of big developers, factory farms, frac sand mining companies, and other polluting interests above the needs of their constituents,” Schumann said.

Backers of AB 600 conceded that they may need to amend it after DNR waterways and wetlands policy director Pam Biersach delivered the agency's analysis of the bill.

A provision requiring DNR to map in detail all state waters for sensitive habitat, instead of declaring the entire body of water sensitive, could require extensive staff resources, Biersach said.

The federal government might not accept state permits allowing wetlands to be filled under the bill's looser standards, and it's not clear that proposed changes in regulations on runoff pollution controls would comply with the federal Clean Water Act, Biersach said.

Flexibility and certainty sought

Lucas Vebber, director of environmental and energy policy for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state business lobby, said the bills would significantly increase flexibility and certainty for private owners.

“There’s a lot going on in these bills,” Vebber said. “Viewing them as a whole, it’s a good thing for property owners in the state.”

Many provisions of AB 600 have been proposed and rejected by previous legislatures, said George Meyer, a former state Department of Natural Resources secretary.

“This seems to be a compilation of everything they couldn’t get through previously in other bills because they were strongly objected to,” said Meyer, the executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

Vebber said the bills will eliminate regulations that have frustrated business operators.

“Senate Bill 464 assures that private property owners are allowed to develop their land and that the rules of the game don’t get changed after they’ve bought the property,” Vebber said.

But SB 464 may be softened at the request of local governments concerned about losing too much of their power to enact regulations, Vebber said. 

In recent years, as the frac sand industry boomed and concentrated animal feeding operations spread, many local governments were caught off guard and citizens complained. Local officials enacted moratoriums that delayed development until they could study and put in place ordinances regulating things like pollution, noise and traffic.

SB 464 would forbid moratoriums, and make businesses immune from any local regulations enacted after they applied for any sort of government permit for its project.

The bill would weaken local government's ability to fashion ordinances protecting residents from unique threats to air and water quality, said Jennifer Giegerich, legislative director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

The bill also changes rules for contested case hearings in which citizens can challenge pollution permits the state issues to businesses. SB 464 allows a business to demand a different hearing examiner if it isn't happy with the one it draws.

AB 600's provision allowing construction on lakebeds for private purposes is a stark departure from existing laws permitting projects like Monona Terrace in Madison that have a public purpose and that preserve public access to the water, Giegerich said.

AB 600 would also change rules for filling in wetlands in a way that would encourage developers to buy wetlands instead of seeking less sensitive land for construction of homes and businesses, Giegerich said.

“Those bills are our top priority because the potential they have to change longstanding conservation protections is quite significant,” Giegerich said.

Rebecca Graser of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the committee it was possible AB 600's creation of separate state and federal wetland permit processes could create delays for permit-seekers.

And even if the state allows owners to disturb filled sections of waterways, federal prohibitions will remain, creating the possibility that landowners will inadvertently violate federal laws, Graser said.

The Legislature was considering other bills affecting waterfront development and high-capacity wells, excavation of wetlands for fish farms and governance of agriculture drainage districts. 


Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.