Superior Plan Commission considers waterway buffers

Commissioners postpone adoption of ordinance that would create setbacks for building near waterways.

The Superior Plan Commission is considering changes to the zoning code that would require setbacks when building near waterways.

Currently, the city has no restrictions that determine how near a structure can be built to a stream, river or shoreline. The proposed change would create a 75-foot buffer zone between a structure and a waterway.

“It also addresses bluffs,” said Jason Serck, economic development, port and planning director. “It’s much needed. It won’t affect a huge number of sites, but it could. It kind of came to light on some of our Winter Street Industrial Park sites that we have.”

Serck said Lakehead Constructors, which is building its new headquarters near the waterfront in the Winter Street Industrial Park, has a 200-foot setback, but that’s because the company is familiar with issues that can arise, especially with water levels being up in Lake Superior. However, the city doesn’t have a guideline and the ordinance would establish that, he said.

“Most of the properties for instance that are on some of the bluffs in Billings Park are large enough it’s not going to affect theirs,” Serck said. “It’s not going to make them nonconforming, which is a concern that we had as well. I think it’s a pretty safe ordinance. It’s modeled after Bayfield County and we took some things from Douglas County as well. It’s not like re-creating the wheel or anything."


Commissioner Dennis Dalbec questioned the need for further regulations because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources already have laws on the books to regulate waterways.

Serck said the agencies do not regulate setbacks from waterways in the city.

While the DNR does regulate setbacks for counties in the state, those setbacks do not govern what the city does with setbacks.

“We’re not duplicating anything,” Serck said. “We’re not adding another layer. We’re essentially doing our own, which we’ve needed for a long time.”

Commissioner Brian Finstad questioned whether there is a way to carve out zones that would be exempt from the setback requirements, such as on Barker’s Island or the north end of Tower Avenue along the waterfront.

“I think there’s a time and place for where there’s like steeply eroding banks and those need setbacks,” Finstad said. “Then there’s a time and place where the public should be in close proximity to the water.”

The ordinance does allow the City Council to make exceptions for recreation and water access such as boat launches.

Serck said the city could add language to the proposed ordinance that would allow the plan commission to allow for variances to the setback requirements.


The Commission delayed action on the proposed ordinance to allow for the change and will consider it during its next scheduled meeting Wednesday, Aug. 21.

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