We own a few acres of scrubby land on a small lake in northern Wisconsin, which includes a cabin and a bit of sandy beach. I love the cool summer nights and frosty winter days of the northern woods. We are miles from the nearest grocery store, but very close to loons, eagles, ducks, and osprey. Sometimes we are too close to bears, but unlike humans, they are more interested in garbage than in killing. This fall, we sat on our beach at sunset and heard only forest and lake noises. There was nothing to buy and nothing to want.
But a lake beach is not forever. Forces of nature and civilization are not kind to expanses of sand at water’s edge. The road gradually crumbles, and pieces of asphalt and stone wash down onto the beach with the rain, often helped by road maintenance crews. Weeds growing up every year in the water and on the shore threaten to overwhelm the empty sandy space. Summer storms drag sand downwards into the lake, some of which is pushed up again by winter ice. Our beach is a constant project, but every sunset makes it worth the labor.
Sitting on the beach this fall was a good escape from our awful electoral politics. But politics also affects our little beach in ways which demonstrate how American politics really works.
The Wisconsin budget bill this year included a provision altering statewide zoning for lakefront properties. As the state of Wisconsin explains the new law: “counties that currently have shoreland zoning ordinance standards that regulate in a more restrictive manner than the standards established in s. 59.692 and NR 115, can no longer enforce those standards”.
The zoning changes were put into the larger budget bill by Republican leaders without giving Democratic legislators more than an hour’s notice. Wisconsin residents had no opportunity to offer input.
Wisconsin has 15,000 lakes scattered across the state, from gigantic Lake Superior to tiny lakes like ours. The circumstances in every county are different, depending on the number and size of lakes, development of shore land, presence of native trout breeding areas and significance of fishing. Many counties, especially those in the north which have more lakes, had adopted more restrictive protective standards than the state, on minimum size of lakefront properties and minimum distance of new buildings from the water. These will now be swept away.
A County Board Supervisor in Washburn County, where our property is located, said, “I’m just madder than hell.” He said the “ugly truth” was that a “major contributor to Gov. Walker” was not allowed to mow his lawn right down to water’s edge, so he complained. The next day the new shoreland zoning rules were put into the state budget. This was not a partisan complaint: Trump won every town, village and city in Washburn County.
Local officials across the state complained. The Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association, Wisconsin County Code Administrators and Wisconsin County Planning and Zoning Administrators collaborated on a memo requesting that the zoning changes be removed from the budget bill. They argued that the changes would lead to “a decline in environmental quality in our shoreland areas, and consequently, result in lower property values and a decline in overall economic conditions.” To no avail.
Considered alone, this change to lake shore zoning may seem like a minor issue, concerning only the minority who own lake front property. But it exemplifies the state of politics in America. Rich political donors get preferential treatment for their private interests. Local control is a popular slogan, but in important issues central governments take control. Protection of the environment for the future gives way to current convenience. Those undemocratic practices are shared by both parties.
But Republican politics leans even more toward the interests of the powerful. This lake zoning change is one of hundreds of seemingly minor acts in Wisconsin, since Republicans won control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion in 2010, which add up to the model Republican political program about protection of the consumer, the safety net for the poorest Americans, environmental protection, and the rights of immigrants and the disabled.
The Republicans have allowed more lead in paint and exempted paint manufacturers from lawsuits about lead; reduced employers’ financial liabilities for their discrimination in employment; reduced regulations about false advertising by the payday loan industry; shielded politicians who violate ethics and elections laws; limited the ability for women to sue about unequal pay; and in hundreds of actions prohibited local governments from passing their own ordinances about the environment, land use, transportation, and construction. In every case, the our common public rights are subordinated to the private rights of the big and powerful.
Everyone appears to be worried that soon-to-be President Trump will make some gigantic blunder, putting us all at risk. More likely is that the Republican Congress and the Republican President will pass hundreds of less notable acts which together will make the rich richer, the powerful more powerful, and the rest of us less able to control our lives.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 6, 2016