Your Place in the Watershed
OK, so you're not a glacier, but you can influence the way that
Western Lake Superior is shaping up. Our communities and shorelines
are changing, and to do nothing only means that change will happen
without our input. We know the environment here is fragile, and
we have a quality of life worth maintaining, so the more we plan
for the future and be proactive, the more our communities will
retain the characteristics important to our quality of life. Each
of us that live or own land in the Western Lake Superior watershed
(and those moving here as well) has two important roles to play:
working with our communities and working with what we have -- our
own homes and properties.
Take a Role in your Community's Future
What is a comprehensive plan?
The comprehensive land-use plan (often referred to as a 'comp plan') is the basic foundation for
local planning. It lays out a community's vision and priorities and describes where, how, and in some
cases when development will occur. Comprehensive plans stipulate the ultimate goals and the rules of
the game: efficient transportation; adequate employment; affordable and adequate housing; community
and individual pride; and access to clean air, water and open space.
Take a look at Duluth's Comprehensive Plan that began in 2005.
Our shore is made up of many counties, towns, and cities, where
the land use rules and regulations we all live by are set. It’s
important to recognize that none of us alone can make the shore
what we want it. This requires working together to create a shared
vision for our communities, and creating clear and strong comprehensive
plans to guide development. Most communities in our region already
have a land use plan that guides community decision-making to
better protect public health and safety and to promote public
welfare, but are they realizing the community's vision and
goals? One commonly missing piece is a Natural Resource Inventory,
or NRI. The NRI sets the stage for effective protection of critical
habitats, open spaces, viewsheds, and recreational opportunities,
provides a basis for rational decision-making, clarifies the actions
in your comprehensive plan, and facilitates the site review process
for land owners, developers, local officials, and staff.
Seek out your local government’s planning commission or
watershed management organization and help to incorporate the
following natural resource-based planning methods into your community’s planning
NEMO -- Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials
Interested in getting started with this in your community?
NEMO can provide you and your town with the information
and tools you need to make the best decisions possible
to protect the resources in your community.
learn how this program can help your community, contact Northland
NEMO for help in setting up a presentation on
how land use decisions today can affect your future
- Inventory the natural resources
- Assess and Prioritize the natural resource functions and values
- Incorporate the assessment into your community’s comprehensive land use plan
- Implement the comprehensive land use plan with tools including education, regulation, and incentives
- Review site plans to evaluate compliance and impacts
While most communities have a comprehensive plan, few take the
critical steps outlined above to maintain and protect the important
natural resources within their community. Skipping this process
fails to set the stage for effective protection of critical habitats,
desired open spaces, viewsheds, and recreational opportunities
that are vital to maintaining a community’s character and
quality of life. What are the important resources in your community?
Are they identified in your comprehensive plan? Are any protections
in place to maintain these resources into the future?
The first step is to determine what you have in your community,
where it is, and how much of it there is. The main pieces of
information your community will need include:
- Base Map: Boundaries and major features of your community,
such as roads, trails, and water and sewer lines.
- Land Cover: Identifies locations and amounts of both developed
and undeveloped areas, but also can identify the general pattern
of development in your community, such as where large blocks of
natural areas exist, and where development is concentrated.
- Soils: Accurate soils information isn’t always easy
to find, but when it exists, can be useful to determine the
potential of the land such as: septic system limitations, potential
wetland locations, and sometimes slope limitations.
- Water Resources: This includes watershed boundaries, streams,
lakes, and wetlands in your community, but also may include wellhead
locations and drinking water source areas.
- Unique and Fragile Lands: Some areas along the shoreline
harbor threaten or endangered species of plants or animals,
can help you identify key habitats within your community. Trout
streams, trout lakes, steep erodible slopes or banks, and some
types of wetlands fit this category as well.
- Committed Open Space: This identifies currently protected
areas within your community, such as municipal state or national
parks, existing conservation easements, scientific and natural
areas, and state parks, and is used to determine what is currently
protected, if connections between them make sense, and where additional
open space might be desired.
There may be other types of information important to your community
as well, and these should be identified up-front. Many of your
communities will already have some of this data, but most, if
not all, is available on the internet for Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Some excellent resources for this information can be found at:
Assess and Prioritize
This is where science meets policy.
- Which wetlands are most important?
- What open spaces are important to the community?
- Where are future trails desired?
- Which unprotected streams or lakes are critical
Answers to these questions and others like it are the goal of
this critical, and often skipped, stage of the NRI. This step
helps communities handle potential conflicts when development
proposals are submitted. Although an assessment is based on the
scientific understanding of the natural resources, the prioritization
process is depends on the vision and goals of the community. An
assessment can range in complexity from a simple visual analysis
to using complex modeling methods to quantify the resource(s).
After the scientific information is gathered, local decision-makers
prioritize the resources according to their importance and merit
to the community (e.g., pristine ecosystem, self-sustaining habitat,
wildlife corridors, stormwater treatment, flood storage, bird
migration, open space, recreation, etc). Assigning priorities
will help define the kinds of tools needed to protect the natural
Each of our community’s comprehensive land use plans includes
a Vision, supporting goals, and action items to reach those goals.
Examples from land use plans in the area related to natural resource
Land use is becoming more and more litigious, with rising numbers
of contentious lawsuits filed over land use issues along
shorelines. One way to avoid this is for communities to include clear
requirements in land use plans and policies. A developer
cannot be expected to meet unknown requirements. Clear language helps
a community to protect
its land and implement best management practices while parcels
are developed, and helps developers by letting them know what's expected
of them by
- Proctor Comprehensive
- Goal: Promote creative development
possibilities throughout the City to allow for
wise use of the land while protecting environmental
resources and quality of life
- Action Item: Discuss/write codes that
provide and encourage flexibility in housing
(density credits, cluster developments) that
will result in more green/public space
Shore Land Use Plan – Lester River to
Two Harbors (2001):
- Goal: Protect, enhance, or preserve
natural areas and scenic vistas in all considerations
- Action Item: Limit lakeshore development
and other shoreland development that risks water
contamination of Lake Superior or its tributaries.
Township Landuse Plan (2002):
- Goal: Limit the effects of storm water
and non-point pollution from impervious surfaces
on rivers, streams, wetlands, and Lake Superior
- Action Item: Designate natural resource
protection areas: Establish a threshold for
new impervious surfaces within sensitive areas,
and allow higher thresholds conditional on acquiring
conservation easements within the designated
County Landuse Plan (2003):
- Goal: High quality and adequate quantities
of ground and surface water are maintained and
preserved in Bayfield County
- Action Item: Promote Best Management
Practices (BMP's) and/or implement ordinances
for the protection of ground and surface water
for the following and subsequently identified
needs: chemical use near surface waters, construction
site erosion control, lakes and rivers classification
plans, and shoreline restoration programs
Wisconsin Landuse Plan (2004):
- Goal: Ashland’s natural, coastal,
and agricultural areas are preserved, protected,
restored, and enhanced utilizing principles
of sustainability and sound environmental science
- Action Item: Preserve the functional
integrity of all natural drainage courses from
impacts due to increased storm water runoff
through acquisition of drainage easements and
other interventions as needed.
Since few comprehensive land use plans, however, start with a
natural resource inventory followed by an assessment and prioritization
process it is difficult for a community to determine which areas
should be protected or restored and how. Communities can save
time and money with an NRI in site plan reviews as well.
This is where the work gets done. Local governments can access
many tools to help them protect community resources. Generally,
a community uses a combination of education, incentives, and regulations
to implement an Action Item in a land use plan.
- Education – Encouraging individuals
or businesses to act consistently with the goal
- Incentives – Enticing individuals or
businesses to act consistently with the goal.
- Regulation – Requiring individuals
or businesses to act consistently with the goal.
Educational programs can have long-term value. Teaching
people new ways to think about and manage their own land preserves
individual property rights. If new regulations are required, education
can also help residents understand what community goals the new
regulations are designed to achieve, and what they have to do
to follow the new regulations, which can help alleviate resident’s
concerns. In the Western Lake Superior Region, the Regional
Stormwater Protection Team (RSPT) was created to serve this purpose. Their
Mission is: to protect and
enhance the region's shared water resources through stormwater
by providing coordinated educational programs and technical
Incentive programs encourage landowners to participate in achieving
goals laid out in our land use plans. Examples include: donated
conservation easements, purchase or transfer of development rights,
and planned land purchases. When people volunteer to participate
in incentive programs, they benefit and so does the community;
programs can direct growth to areas with existing or nearby urban
services, promote development patterns that fully pay for public
services, may enhance the value of properties near protected land,
and may increase the tax base. Landowners benefit by possibly
receiving compensation or getting tax breaks, and they still own
the land and can continue traditional uses such as logging, agriculture,
Ordinances relating to your community's natural resources:
- Sediment and Erosion Control
- PUD (Planned Unit Development)
Regulations are used to balance interests of the community with
those of individuals. Regulations apply unilaterally and clearly
let people know what’s expected of them. Oftentimes communities
look to regulation alone to solve their problems, but it’s
important to recognize that ordinances are only as good as the
community’s ability to monitor and enforce them. Compliance
to and acceptance of regulations are often higher when coupled
with an educational program explaining the reasons for and expected
outcomes of the rules.
Additional Tools for Effective Planning:
Donated conservation easements
Purchased development rights (PDR)
Transferred development rights (TDR)
Volunteers serving on various local government boards, commissions,
and councils routinely review plans that describe proposed
new development on sites ranging from individual lots to large
subdivisions. Site plans are reviewed to find out how the land
use plan and its affiliated ordinances (i.e., zoning, stormwater,
wetlands, etc.) will be carried out on a site-level basis.
Reviewing these plans requires a regional perspective of the
watershed, the ability to ask questions, make comments, seek
more information, suggest alternatives, and the political will
to approve only designs that meet the vision and goals of your
Here are some good questions to ask about proposed development
projects, and be prepared to also ask “Why?” or “Why
- Is it compatible with adjacent activities and land uses?
- What is its impact on the watershed?
- Can the developer reduce runoff and save money by reducing
infrastructure through a conservation design?
- Does the proposed site plan recognize and preserve the
desirable natural features?
- Does the proposed site plan work with the site topography?
- Are there adequate setbacks and natural buffers from
- Are vegetated stormwater controls used to manage
- Does the landscape plan preserve existing
vegetation as much as possible and incorporate
native vegetation where
Reviewing site plans also requires knowing how to read the plans
and understand what’s on the maps. The following table depicts
seven diagrams that may appear on site plans presented to your
community. It is important that those charged with reviewing site
plans know what these symbols mean and ask appropriate questions
regarding the feature’s presence.
Questions to Ask
Existing site topography (10 ft vertical intervals).
The closer the lines the steeper the slope,
the farther the lines the flatter the grade.
Calculate the percent slope by taking the change
in elevation over a selected distance using
the map scale and multiplying by 100.
|Shows existing elevation of landscape prior to
development. Watershed areas should also be included.
- How does the water naturally drain through
- How much runoff can one expect in typical
vs. a flood storm event (i.e., 2-year vs.
100-year 24-hour rainfall).
- Where does erosion occur now and does this
impact nearby waterbodies.
||Proposed site topography after development (grading
plan). The solid lines are the new contours after
grading. The closely marked horizontal lines is
an example of where the land is cut and the closely
marked vertical lines is an example of where the
land is filled in.
||Shows permanent landscape changes that will occur
- What is the extent of environmental disturbance?
- What is the extent/amount of fill (where
- What is the extent/amount of cut (where
will it go?)
- What is the erosion potential?
- What are the soil erosion and sedimentary
controls that will be done during and after
||Existing vegetation on the site. May require a
tree survey of types and size.
||Shows forest cover, woods, clumps of trees, shrubs,
single specimen trees on the existing landscaping
- What does the existing vegetation do for
the habitat, stream temperature, endangered/threatened
- What does this landscape help/hinder community
||Proposed landscape plan showing vegetation to be removed and replaced.
||Shows post-development amount of vegetation including types of trees and shrubs and their location
- How will the proposed extent/amount/arrangement of vegetation provide for habitat, temperature control, endangered/threatened species, etc.
- Will native plants be incorporated?
- Will buffers be incorporated?
- Will recreation use be incorporated? What types?
- How will the change improve community character?
b) width of watercourse
Identifies existing streams, creeks, drainageways
Post development maps should include floodplain
and shoreland setbacks as designated by community’s
- What value (function) does the natural
resource inventory give this water body?
- What is the community’s goal(s) for
this watershed and these waterbodies?
- What is the present water quality? Is there
data available? Can the water quality be
- How does this corridor provide for wildlife
habitat, recreation, etc.? Do existing buffers/vegetation
help provide this?
||Wetlands on site must be delineated. A permit
must be obtained from the community and/or US Army
corps of Engineers for filling. The rules state
the developer must first and foremost avoid wetland
impacts followed by reducing impacts and compensating
for wetland impacts with mitigation.
- What types of wetlands are on the site
and are these wetlands in the community’s
natural resource inventory and assessment?
If yes, what goals are required for this
wetland. If no, how should this wetland be
protected in accordance with the rest of
the inventory and assessment?
- How will the soils influence the development
- Will the natural runoff patterns by maintained?