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Wetland Reforms Working to Grow the Economy and Protect the Environment


Given the topography of Wisconsin, wetland impact is usually one of the first considerations that a developer will give to a potential site. The last piece of news that a developer wants to hear from their civil engineer is that a wetland has been discovered on a site teed up for development.  A well-designed site plan that maximized building coverage (and achieved a healthy proforma) is now thrown into regulatory abyss and subject to the overview of the WDNR and Army Corps of Engineers. Wetlands adjacent to active waterways and environmental corridors are essential components to the vast beauty of our state and should remain development free, however, not all wetlands are created equally. Man-made or “artificial” wetlands tend to form in underutilized or abandoned urban areas.  As an example, a construction site that has tire ruts left behind from heavy equipment can absorb storm water runoff over an extended time frame and create a wetland environment if left undisturbed. Typically, artificial wetlands present negligible ecological value, yet they have stymied development in urban areas that otherwise could support new construction.


In 2018, Wisconsin lawmakers enacted 2017 Wis. Act 183  to address many of the challenges that artificial wetlands were creating.  Signed into law by then Governor Walker, Act 183  included the following solutions that delivered meaningful reforms for the economic development community; extended the life of a wetland delineation from 5 years to 15 years, extended more options for offsite mitigation as long as the alternative was located in the same compensation area, allowed for modifications or enhancements to artificial wetland areas without a permit, and perhaps most importantly, allowed for the flexibility to fill an area of up to 1 acre of artificial wetland in an urban area.


While there was a learning curve involved in applying the legislation, the WDNR and the development community are effectively executing  the intent of the new law . My team has successfully been involved with two urban redevelopment sites that have utilized the program, specifically, the ability to fill up to 1 acre of artificial wetland in an urban area. The sites that we are working on were both underutilized parcels located in very desirable industrial pockets in the metro Milwaukee area. With the sites sitting fallow for several years (one of the sites had been abandoned), pooling storm water run off from the area created small artificial wetland pockets on both parcels. Although the total acreage of the artificial wetlands was minimal, the impacts were located within the proposed building footprints, which would have jeopardized the developments under prior law.


The new law  is a great example of balancing the needs of protecting the environment and promoting economic envelopment.  In our two cases, we were able to have the abandoned site environmentally remediated and tie both sites into urban storm water management programs and yield two (2) speculative industrial buildings totaling roughly 330,000 square feet , $20 million dollars in assessed value and vibrant industrial properties that could support upwards of 250 jobs.

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