Zoning Standards

Zoning Ordinance

A community’s Zoning Ordinance is its most effective tool for directing development. As such, it is a crucial tool for protecting waterfronts. Below are several ideas for zoning to create high-quality waterfront spaces, both developed and undeveloped.

Surface Water Protection


Surface water, such as lakes and rivers, can be protected simply by setting back structures from the waterfront. In order to accomplish the desired results, some communities define waterfronts (rather than road) as the front setback. Alternatively, some communities define a waterfront setback, regardless of other setbacks. 100 feet from the body of water frequently provides sufficient distance to reduce flooding concerns and ensure the filtration of rain water, but every community is different.

In some communities, waterfront properties have a roadway dividing them into pieces, either to give access to the water or because garages and homes are on opposite sides of the street. In these cases, the community should define setbacks and other regulations specifically for that unusual, but relatively common, waterfront design.

In Great Lakes communities, setbacks should be measured from the elevation-based Ordinary High Water Mark (link to Who Owns the Water? – Great Lakes), but the community should determine where that line falls in their particular situation. The placement of the elevation based OHWM may mean that the community should adjust the setbacks to make sure they make sense throughout the lakefront.

Setbacks along the Great Lakes are especially important for waterfronts that are not Critical Dunes or High Risk Erosion Areas.


Permeable Surface: 

Runoff is a major environmental concern, especially for inland lakes. Permeable surfaces such as vegetation or permeable pavement allow more water to seep into the ground and be filtered before entering the water. Communities can require a certain percentage of waterfront lots to be permeable surface.

One challenge for many communities is that they do not require site plan approval for single-family homes, and therefore do not have a mechanism to enforce permeable surface requirements on those sites. One solution is to require a simple zoning permit for any impermeable construction on a waterfront lot. Instead of a complex site plan, a home owner could simply submit a sketch plan showing the total square footage of the lot, the existing square footage of impermeable surface, and the square footage of proposed impermeable surface. If the impermeable surface does not exceed the maximum, the permit can be issued.

Vegetative Buffer: 

A community can also require specific vegetation along a waterfront as part of its landscape standards. This tool is best used on commercial or multiple-family sites, where the required site plan approval can be used to enforce the standard, but can be enforced on single family sites as well, using the zoning permit tool described above.

Grading and Detention: 

Another way to reduce runoff is require lots to have a certain percentage of a lot graded away from the water, or to require on-site detention. Both are expensive and complex solutions, but may be practical in some circumstances.

Development Pattern: 

Communities with undeveloped waterfront land should carefully consider the development pattern permitted near the water. Lot width size septic systems and residential density can and should be carefully controlled. Keyhole developments, where inland parcels share an access site on the water, can be very effective in preserving waterfront, but building too many of them can lead to overcrowding and negative environmental impacts.


Wetlands Protection 

Communities can choose to regulate wetlands above and beyond the State regulations. Wetlands under five acres are not regulated by the State, so if a community is passionate about its wetlands, it may choose to enforce local regulations over smaller wetlands. In order to create a local wetlands regulation, a community must take the four following steps:

  1. Do not require a permit for activities exempted from State regulations.
  2. Use the same wetland definition as the State.
  3. Publish a wetland inventory.
  4. Notify the DEQ.

Transfer of Development Rights   

Transfer of Development Rights is a program that communities can set up to allow property owners in an area zoned for agriculture, conservation, or very low density to benefit financially from the value of their property without actually developing it. A community sets up a “sending” zone and a “receiving” zone, and property owners in the “receiving” zone can buy additional density for development from those in the sending zone. TDR is one of the most effective ways to preserve property values while preserving natural space.

It is important to note that the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act does not specifically envision Transfer of Development Rights. However, public Purchase of Development Rights is specifically envisioned, as are Planned Unit Developments, and communities can combine those tools into a TDR program.

MSU Extension Link:http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/with_higher_great_lakes_review_zoning_for_coastal_resiliency_part_1