“Ask Your Attorney” Column

About Those Cattails On Your Property

Dear Counselor: Five years ago, we were able to buy our “dream” cottage, and now that my wife and I have paid down the mortgage somewhat, we have some extra money to do some improvements. There was an area full of muck and shallow water, with cattails around the edge that we wanted to fill in and use for a place to put a swing set and volleyball court. But our son said we’d better not because it might be against the law! Can putting in a volleyball court get us in trouble?

Dear Client: It isn’t the volleyball court or the swing set that will get you into trouble — it is filling in that swampy spot, which is what ecologists refer to as a “wetland”. Without getting into a biology course, it is enough to know that wetlands are important environmental areas and are protected by law. They provide areas for wetland plants and animals to thrive, and for groundwater to be filtered and “recharged”. You can’t just choose to fill them in, and build over them. In a sense, you are lucky because your cottage is already built. Many people will buy property not even realizing that wetlands exist on it, and find out that rules and regulations operate to prevent not only filling and developing that part of the property, but also require setbacks from wetland boundaries. That could mean that the presence of wetland on your neighbor’s property will affect your ability to build on your own property. So, before your buy, or plan to build on property you already own, check out the resources in your own community that will give you a “heads up” where wetlands may exist in and about the property you are interested in. Wetland Inventory Maps are available at the County Land Use and Resource Management [ie. zoning] Office, and also at the Building and Zoning Departments of our local Town, Village and City Halls. County Soil Surveys, aerial photographs, and adopted land use plans are other sources to be consulted. If you aren’t sure, there are wetland biologists who can be retained to check for you. After all, a few hundred dollars to “make sure” would be well worth it, as compared to the cost of buying property that cannot, and should not, be developed. More questions? Just give me a call, and be sure to add wetlands to your due diligence checklist.


John L. Maier, Jr.

Sweet & Maier, S.C., Attorneys

114 Church St.
Elkhorn, Wisconsin