Building Your Waterfront Home

Obtaining Approvals & Permits


Following are general guidelines for constructing a home on waterfront property. The same guidelines generally apply when constructing other buildings on this property (i.e., garages, storage buildings etc.). A permit is required to construct any structure/building exceeding 100 square feet in area. While permits are not required for smaller structures/buildings, they must meet all minimum setback requirements.

The following is a convenient checklist that will assist you through the permitting process:
  • Zone district and parcel size - check the zone district and the size of the parcel to ensure that a dwelling can be built on the lot. Some zone districts allow dwellings only with special or conditional use permits. Also, the parcel may be too small on which to construct a dwelling or it may be of such a small size that minimum setbacks cannot be met. These types of situations require the prior approval of a variance before permits can be issued.
  • Legal title - permits are issued only to the legal owner(s) of a parcel. Permit applications must be signed by a property owner. Applications signed by the owner's agent are acceptable, but only when accompanied by the appropriate power of attorney.
  • Soil test - contact a State of Wisconsin licensed Certified Soil Tester (CST) to perform a soil test. The CST will file the original copy of his report with the Zoning Department and also provide you with a copy.
  • Sanitary permit - all dwellings require some type of system (commonly referred to as a septic system) for the disposal of waste and wastewater. Contact a licensed plumber who will apply for a sanitary permit and design a septic system for the dwelling. The plumber is also responsible for the septic system installation. Approved sanitary permits are filed in the Zoning Department.
  • Filling and grading permits - both County and DNR permits may be required for filling and grading activities on the property. A County land use permit is required when disturbing more than 10,000 square feet of soil within 300 feet of the ordinary high-water mark of a navigable water body. The DNR has permit requirements that differ from those of the County. Contact the DNR for permitting requirements.
  • Mitigating the shoreline vegetation protection area - the Sawyer County Shoreland Zoning Ordinance requires that as a condition for the issuance of a land use permit, the condition of the property's shoreline vegetation protection area (SVPA) be verified. If the SVPA is intact as defined by the zoning ordinance, the property owner(s) must sign an agreement with the Zoning Department stating that the property owner agrees to maintain the SVPA in its current condition. In those situations where the SVPA is not in compliance, the property owner must sign an agreement to bring the SVPA into compliance before a Land Use Permit will be issued. The process of bringing the SVPA into compliance is known as "mitigation." The Sawyer County Land and Water Conservation Department must approve all mitigation plans.
  • Property address (911 - fire number) sign - each dwelling is required to be identified by a 911 sign for emergency services support. Application must be made at the Zoning Department for new and replacement signs.
  • Uniform Dwelling Code (UDC) inspections - as mandated by the State, each Town/municipality in Sawyer County has a program for the enforcement of the State's Uniform Dwelling Code as it pertains to the construction of 1 and 2-family dwellings. Each Town determines what the extent of its inspections will be (i.e., new dwellings only, new dwellings and additions to existing dwellings, all new construction to include garages and other out buildings, etc.). Towns, or their inspection agencies/inspectors, are responsible for issuing "Wisconsin Uniform Building Permits" for 1 and 2-family dwelling construction. The Zoning Department maintains inspection packets for the Town's inspection agencies/inspectors that are available for property owners.for handing out to property owners.

Setbacks & Other Issues


The Sawyer County Zoning Ordinance contains minimum setback requirements from lot lines (front, side and rear), roadways, wetland areas and navigable waters.
  • Lot line setbacks - minimum lot line setbacks are found in Section 18.0 Dimensions Requirements. However, for any waterfront lot created on or after April 15, 1997 (the date that the County adopted lakes classification standards), the side lot line (side yard setback) established in Section 4.417 Lake Class Development Standards, shall apply to all new structures on that lot.
  • Impervious surfaces - Section 4.422 Impervious Surface Limitations, established the impervious surface requirements for shoreline properties. The impervious surface requirements differ for that part of a parcel located within 300 feet of a water body and that part of a parcel located greater than 300 feet from a water body.
    1. Within 300 feet of the water body. Total impervious surface area shall not exceed 15% of that land area located within 300 feet of water body. This limitation may be increased to 25% with the approval of a conditional use permit by the Sawyer County Zoning Committee.
    1. Greater than 300 feet from the water body. Total impervious surface area shall not exceed 15% of that land area located greater than 300 feet from the water body. This limitation may be increased to 30% with the approval of a Rainwater/Snow Run-off Retention Plan by the Zoning department.
      • Nonconforming shoreline structures - any structure located closer than 75 feet to the ordinary high-water mark of navigable water). It is common for property owners to want to add onto their home, garage or other building. However, it is also common for 1 or more of those buildings to be located closer than 75 feet to navigable water. Thus, creating what is known as a nonconforming shoreline structure. The rules that apply to nonconforming structures differ depending on how close the structure is to the waterway, and whether the structure is a primary or accessory structure.
      • Nonconforming principal structures - located closer than 40 feet from the ordinary high-water mark. Such structures are allowed:
        • Ordinary maintenance and repair
        • Internal improvement
        • Foundation replacement
        • Roof replacement
        • Expansion/additions only by approved variance
      • Nonconforming principal structures located from 40 feet to 75 feet to the ordinary high-water mark.Such structures are allowed:
        • Ordinary maintenance and repair
        • Internal improvement
        • Foundation replacement
        • Roof replacement
        • Expansion/additions allowed only if:
          • The existing dwelling includes at least 500 square feet of enclosed, habitable area
          • Additions are located landward but not closer than 75 feet to the water
          • Total dwelling footprint, to include any proposed additions, shall not exceed 1500 square feet
          • Total habitable living area shall not exceed 3000 square feet
          • Maximum dwelling height is limited to 26 feet from lowest grade
          • Basements shall be converted to walkouts only on the landward side of the dwelling
        • The existing dwelling includes at least 500 square feet of enclosed, habitable area
        • Additions are located landward but not closer than 75 feet to the water
        • Total dwelling footprint, to include any proposed additions, shall not exceed 1500 square feet
        • Total habitable living area shall not exceed 3000 square feet.Maximum dwelling height is limited to 26 feet from lowest grade
        • Basements shall be converted to walkouts only on the landward side of the dwelling
      • Nonconforming accessory structures - located closer than 75 feet to the ordinary high-water mark. Such structures are allowed:
        • Ordinary maintenance and repair
        • Internal improvement
        • Foundation replacement
        • Roof replacement.