Your Place in the Watershed

Development may be inevitable but it should be done responsibly.

A Citizen's Guide to Influencing Local Land-Use Decisions [1.7 MB pdf, 2007] was developed by two non-profit organizations – 1000 Friends of Minnesota and Minnesota Waters – to help citizens better understand the development process for the purpose of improving land use management policy and conserving our water resources.

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 process.

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.

To 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 water quality.

  1. Inventory the natural resources
  2. Assess and Prioritize the natural resource functions and values
  3. Incorporate the assessment into your community’s comprehensive land use plan
  4. Implement the comprehensive land use plan with tools including education, regulation, and incentives
  5. 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:

  1. Base Map: Boundaries and major features of your community, such as roads, trails, and water and sewer lines.
  2. 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.
  3. Soils: Accurate soils information isn’t always easy to find, but when it exists, can be useful to determine the development potential of the land such as: septic system limitations, potential wetland locations, and sometimes slope limitations.
  4. Water Resources: This includes watershed boundaries, streams, lakes, and wetlands in your community, but also may include wellhead locations and drinking water source areas.
  5. Unique and Fragile Lands: Some areas along the shoreline harbor threaten or endangered species of plants or animals, and this 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.
  6. Committed Open Space: This identifies currently protected areas within your community, such as municipal state or national forests, 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:


MN Geospatial Commons

A collaborative place for users and publishers of geospatial resources in Minnesota.

(MN DNR Data Deli replacement).

Land Management
Information Center

Coastal GIS


Land Information and Computer Graphics Facility



Click here to see a prototype tool from a pilot project for Duluth Township to help landowners gain access to working maps of their property.

Duluth Township Scenery



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 habitats?

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 resources.


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 protection include:

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 goals and 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 the community.

  • Proctor Comprehensive Plan (2002):
    • 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
  • North Shore Land Use Plan – Lester River to Two Harbors (2001):
    • Goal: Protect, enhance, or preserve natural areas and scenic vistas in all considerations of development.
    • Action Item: Limit lakeshore development and other shoreland development that risks water contamination of Lake Superior or its tributaries.
  • Duluth 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 area.
  • Bayfield 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
  • Ashland, 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 pollution prevention by providing coordinated educational programs and technical assistance.

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, or recreation.

Ordinances relating to your community's natural resources:

  • Zoning
  • Subdivision
  • Stormwater
  • Sediment and Erosion Control
  • Shoreland
  • 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)

Land acquisition



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 community.

Here are some good questions to ask about proposed development projects, and be prepared to also ask “Why?” or “Why Not?”:

  1. Is it compatible with adjacent activities and land uses?
  2. What is its impact on the watershed?
  3. Can the developer reduce runoff and save money by reducing infrastructure through a conservation design?
  4. Does the proposed site plan recognize and preserve the site’s desirable natural features?
  5. Does the proposed site plan work with the site topography?
  6. Are there adequate setbacks and natural buffers from nearby waterbodies?
  7. Are vegetated stormwater controls used to manage runoff?
  8. Does the landscape plan preserve existing vegetation as much as possible and incorporate re-planted native vegetation where feasible?

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.

Map Symbol
Natural Resource
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.
  1. How does the water naturally drain through the site?
  2. How much runoff can one expect in typical vs. a flood storm event (i.e., 2-year vs. 100-year 24-hour rainfall).
  3. 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 with construction.
  1. What is the extent of environmental disturbance?
  2. What is the extent/amount of fill (where from?)
  3. What is the extent/amount of cut (where will it go?)
  4. What is the erosion potential?
  5. What are the soil erosion and sedimentary controls that will be done during and after construction?
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
  1. What does the existing vegetation do for the habitat, stream temperature, endangered/threatened species, etc.
  2. What does this landscape help/hinder community character?
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
  1. How will the proposed extent/amount/arrangement of vegetation provide for habitat, temperature control, endangered/threatened species, etc.
  2. Will native plants be incorporated?
  3. Will buffers be incorporated?
  4. Will recreation use be incorporated? What types?
  5. How will the change improve community character?


a) watercourse

b) width of watercourse

Identifies existing streams, creeks, drainageways on site.

Post development maps should include floodplain and shoreland setbacks as designated by community’s ordinances.

  1. What value (function) does the natural resource inventory give this water body?
  2. What is the community’s goal(s) for this watershed and these waterbodies?
  3. What is the present water quality? Is there data available? Can the water quality be improved? How?
  4. How does this corridor provide for wildlife habitat, recreation, etc.? Do existing buffers/vegetation help provide this?


Wetlands 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.
  1. 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?
  2. How will the soils influence the development design?
  3. Will the natural runoff patterns by maintained?