Sunfish Pond Development

An array of heavy machinery overturn the soil of former farmland behind Sunfish Pond, making was for new residential development.

The DeForest Village Board voted on May 4 to loosen building restrictions for shoreline property owners, but not to abandon local setback requirements.

The discussion came to the board through a proposed amendment to the DeForest Zoning Shoreland Regulations (Chapter 25), drafted by Village Planning Consultant Mark Roffers. The basis of the changes, Roffers explained in a memo to the board, came with changes in state legislation that remove the obligation of municipalities to align with county water management.

One of the most specific effects of this change, reflected in the proposed amendment, was the changing the shoreline building setback from 75 feet, as outlined by Dane County, to the state minimum setback of 50 feet.

The proposal, however, also brought up a deeper exploration of the village’s exact legal obligations and expectations of landowners.

“We’re meeting the state standards,” said Village Trustee William Landgraf, “but if the state doesn’t require it, I don’t see any need for the vegetative buffer to be in there.”

Landgraf described the setback requirement as “just another encumbrance on residents,” supposing that the requirement could be troublesome if a property owner wanted to remove a shrub--potentially an invasive species--but “your neighbor who’s a tree hugger,” didn’t understand.

“It’s in the best interest of your property to maintain it, so it holds value, and I just don’t see any need for that to be in the ordinance if it’s not needed,” said Landgraf.

Trustee Abigail Lowery cited the village’s Comprehensive Plan, which outlines the village’s obligation to administer regulations for environmental protection, and prevention of flooding and other natural hazards. Lowery moved to have the amendments approved with the exception of changing the setback to 75 feet, back in line with Dane County, and changing the phrasing of “shall maintain vegetation growing there,” to “must maintain.”

Lowery’s motions did not find a second among the board.

Attorney Al Reuter, who earlier expressed hesitance of speaking off-the-cuff about as complicated and historically involved legal area as this, jumped in after making some checks on the subject of vegetative buffers.

“This basically would prevent people from clear-cutting what is there now,” said Reuter. “It wouldn’t require them to install a new buffer area.”

Trustee Jim Simpson, a years-long member of the DeForest Planning and Zoning Commission before his recent election, spoke up to offer support for Lowery’s intent on prioritizing river protection, but also adding context as he saw from planning and zoning.

“I think the way that we [protect the river] for the village is through the stormwater ordinance and we have one of the best ones in my opinion, in terms of protecting the Yahara River,” said Simpson.

A sticking point, Simpson explained, was that a 75-foot buffer would require a number of structures built around a 50-foot buffer Planning and Zoning worked with to be “grandfathered in” and make it impossible to make improvements to those existing buildings in the future.

Landgraf moved to approve the proposed amendments with the exception of removing the requirement of any vegetative buffer, saying: “You might get a scoff law here or there, but it’s just an unneeded hindrance on a property owner and it’s not like we’re going to cut the trees down and whatever, it’s just another hindrance.”

Village Board President Jane Cahill Wolfgram entered the discussion with a suggestion for consideration, saying: “There is more to the vegetative buffer than just when you are building.”

Cahill Wolfgram pointed out that when residents use fertilizer or chemical treatment on their lawns, having a vegetative buffer helps prevent those chemicals from eventually washing into the river.

“I’m no scientist by any means,” said Cahill Wolfgram, “but I’ve done a lot with the Clean Water Act and clean water work, and we’ve made a lot of progress in cleaning up our waterways and one of the tools is vegetation. Just one woman’s thoughts.”

Trustee Colleen Little followed, citing the definition of a vegetative buffer as being designed to protect water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and natural beauty: “I don’t see how I could be against that. I’m in favor of a vegetative buffer zone.”

Little also clarified that on closer inspection, the rules regarding vegetative buffers do allow for removal of invasive species, and trees or debris that might be posing an imminent safety hazard.

Following a question from Trustee Rebecca Witherspoon, Reuter and Zoning Administrator Brandi Cooper explained that the obligation on a property owner to “maintain” would essentially amount to just not removing the existing vegetation outside of those specific exceptions.

The hypothetical question came up of putting rocks along a shoreline, which was agreed would not be legally prevented by a buffer, but as Simpson explained, would get into potentially interfering with a waterway and would be a whole separate discussion under flooding ordinances.

Simpson moved to pass the amendments as originally described (with the 50-foot vegetative buffer), seconded by Little. The motion passed four to two, with Lowery and Landgraf voting against.

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