Few counties in Wisconsin are as wet as Douglas County.
Nearly a quarter of the total acreage of land in Douglas County is wetland and that poses a challenge for economic development.
Douglas County has a plan to manage that challenge and is working with city officials to draw on decades of expertise in handling wetland mitigation as it pushes to create an in-lieu fee program for wetland mitigation.
The program allows developers to pay for wetland credits before they are created so Douglas County can restore and enhance wetlands elsewhere. A plan that identified historic and degraded wetlands in the Lake Superior watershed in Douglas County would guide where mitigation takes place.
It's different from the city's special area management plan, which requires the city to have credits available in a mitigation bank before officials can issue wetland permits.
According to the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, 50 percent of Wisconsin's wetlands have been lost since the late 1800s. Mitigation is intended to preserve remaining wetlands, which provide habitat for wildlife, clean waterways by removing pollutants and sediments, provide flood protection, are home for rare and endangered species, create recreation opportunities and protect against shoreline erosion.
In May, the county submitted a prospectus to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an application that has stalled, according to Douglas County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert.
The county is in the second phase of a four-step process, where the nuts and bolts of the proposal start to come together, said Ryan Malterud, acting section chief for the northeast section regulatory branch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in St. Paul. He said in December, the Army Corps provided the county with a detailed letter outlining information the county would need to provide so the regulatory agencies can continue their evaluation of the proposal.
In addition to the Army Corps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are given an opportunity to weigh in on the proposal as it develops toward a final plan.
"What we've come up with in our program is we've identified where they are actually, where they were historically, and where are those points where we can build smaller wetlands - 5 acres, 10 acres instead of huge ones." Liebaert said.
Liebaert said the plan got its start after a dispute between Amnicon and Superior after the city purchased a parcel of land in Amnicon with the intention of turning it into the city's next wetland mitigation bank. The site had been identified as one of the most buildable parcels in the town's comprehensive plan.
While Superior and Amnicon negotiated an compromise acceptable to both, Liebaert said issues like that have been a problem for communities outside of Superior for years.
"They don't know the history and how we got here - how the towns have been screaming for years because the city in most cases, or Enbridge or one of the private company's are mitigating on our future growth," Liebaert said. "They're coming out and taking our developable sites and farms, and turning them into wetlands, which meets the criteria of the law but it doesn't serve the community that lives near them."
Liebaert is hopeful an in-lieu fee program would restore a level of local control because it would rely on the county's wetland plan rather than a mitigation bank like the one Superior will be developing later this year on Moonshine Road in Amnicon to support its recently approved third special area management plan (SAMP III).
The city is going to restore an old, degraded wetland, which will give the city another 90-100 credits it can sell, according to Jason Serck, economic development, port and planning director for Superior.
Darienne McNamara, Superior's SAMP manager, said the abundance of wetlands in the city and county can be a hindrance to development.
"I think the county definitely needs some kind of mitigation program," McNamara said. "They're in the same position we are, for the same reason the city started a mitigation bank."
Despite the challenge with the city's mitigation banks, Douglas County has benefited from being able to buy credits at a reasonable rate, rather than $59,000 per credit for the state's in-lieu fee program or more in the private sector, to replace wetlands taken for county highway projects, Liebaert said.
"In terms of wetland mitigation, the city and county have always been good partners," Mayor Jim Paine said.
"When we mitigate wetlands, we should do that in a way that protects the existing ecosystems as much as possible; we should avoid constructing man-made wetlands as much as possible," Paine said. "We want the systems to work the way nature intended."
It's what the mayor said he likes about the county's proposed program, which is based on restoring identified degraded and historic wetlands.
"Douglas County's program, if they are allowed to do it, would be more flexible," Paine said. "The part I like the most is they would be looking for places that were always wet."