Zoning to protect lakeshore areas? Do an assessment first

Doing an assessment of the current resources and trends before developing standards is the best way to come up with practical, effective and enforceable regulations.

Inland lakes are a vital resource in northern Michigan, and many local governments seek to protect those shorelines through zoning restrictions. Participants in a recent advanced shoreline planning and zoning workshop in northeast Michigan learned about the importance of doing an assessment before implementing new or revising old development standards.

These regulations affect building setbacks from shorelines, natural buffer strip requirements and depth, restrictions on impervious surfaces, and standards for shoreline erosion control structures.

When developing new zoning regulations it is common practice to take a peek at what other nearby communities are doing to address a specific zoning challenge, and then adopting or adapting those standards for your community. In many cases, that approach works fine, but not so when regulating shoreline areas. There is so much variability in shoreline characteristics and development patterns from community to community that borrowing standards from a neighbor may not be the best idea.

Learning what the situation is in your area – current risks, development patterns and trends – is an excellent first step before writing specific regulations. Questions planning commissions might ask include, among others:

  • What is the predominant setback of existing buildings form the shore?
  • Are there trouble spots where erosion and runoff is excessive?
  • How intact is the natural buffer of trees and shrubs around area lakes?
  • What percent of each parcel do homes, driveways and other impervious surfaces occupy?
  • What are the soils like around area lakes?
  • How steep is the land surrounding area lakes?
  • Are there a lot of seawalls protecting the lakeshore?
  • What are current development trends? Are seasonal homes being replaced by larger year-round residences?

Finding answers to these questions does not have to be time-consuming or expensive. Easily-accessible web-based tools such as Google Earth, the Natural Resources Conservation Service Web Soil Survey and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Surface Water Information Management System offer a lot of information at no cost. Participants during the workshop practiced using maps generated by these systems to estimate setbacks, lot area coverage and shoreline buffers. Organizations such as watershed councils, local government planning and GIS departments, and regional planning agencies may also be excellent information sources.

Careful assessment, documented in the master plan, provides the legal basis for regulation and helps assure standards are practical and match the shoreline protection needs. For instance, if an assessment determines that a natural tree and shrub buffer averaging 30-feet deep surrounds most of the area lakes, a standard requiring maintaining that buffer may be effective in protecting the lakes while reducing the need for other regulations. Likewise, if there are many lakes and a lot of development variability, several shoreline districts applying to different areas might better match protection goals.

For more information about shoreline zoning regulations, see a two-part article published in 2012 by Michigan State University Extension.

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