Creating a Coastline Management Policy for Milwaukee County

beach with volleyball nets

There was a need to establish coastal management guidelines to protect Milwaukee County’s coastal land and assets.

Creating a Coastline Management Policy for Milwaukee County


map of Milwaukee County lands

Milwaukee County Coastline Management Zones (credit: Milwaukee County)

Milwaukee County (County) wanted to establish coastline management guidelines based upon best practices to protect County lakefront property from future impacts of coastal hazards. The guidelines would offer a framework for promoting bluff slope stability within County-owned lands along the Lake Michigan coastline and serve as a reference tool as the County considers conducting work or evaluates proposals from property owners, friends groups, municipalities, and others interested in conducting work that could impact bluff slope stability within County-owned lands along the Lake Michigan coastline. This project evaluated the existing conditions of the County’s coastal property and established guidelines for proposed development, landscape management, and shore protection modifications and structures. In 2021, the Milwaukee County Coastline Management Guidelines were published and are available  here.


This project was funded as part of the Southeastern Wisconsin Coastal Resilience project led by the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program. To be eligible for this funding, Lake Michigan coastal local governments in Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee, and Ozaukee counties completed a Coastal Resilience Self-Assessment to help prioritize top coastal hazard concerns and identify potential planning and mitigation practices to address these hazards. Local governments used the results of their assessment to develop projects that would help address priority needs identified in the assessment in order to enhance their capacity to plan, prepare for and adapt to coastal hazards.


Funding for this project was provided by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) Coastal Resilience Grants Program, Grant # NA17NOS4730144. 


Title of Project: Creating a Coastline Management Policy for Milwaukee County

 Organization applying: Milwaukee County

 Total project cost: $30,400

 Grant award: $19,000


The Coastal Resilience Issue

Milwaukee County’s lakefront property and assets are becoming increasingly vulnerable to coastal hazards. Natural resources, public access, and County-owned infrastructure are impacted by the Lake’s fluctuating water levels and coastal hazards. As a result of rising water levels on Lake Michigan from 2013 to 2020, and sustained record high water levels in 2020, Milwaukee County’s coastline experienced severe erosion and bluff failures.


Vision for the Community

Milwaukee County wants to protect County-owned assets along Lake Michigan including diverse natural resources, recreational opportunities, public access, and municipal infrastructure such as storm sewers and outfalls. The County wants to support management options that ensure that local governments can access and maintain such infrastructure in a manner that would not negatively impact County-owned coastline assets.


The Need

A study conducted by the International Joint Commission in 1993 found that nonstructural preventative approaches like guidelines for development and land and water management practices initiated by coastal communities effectively reduced the risk of coastline impacts.


Milwaukee County Parks determined there was a need for the County to establish a set of coastline management guidelines to use as follows:

  • To maintain the unique coastline resources that support recreational opportunities within County owned lakefront lands
  • To proactively manage the risks that coastline impacts present to the public, to County-owned assets, and to other publicly owned infrastructure
  • To mitigate adverse coastline impacts and protect County-owned assets adjacent to Lake Michigan
  • To standardize and expedite the process by which the County responds to local government requests to conduct land-disturbing activities while managing municipally owned infrastructure within County-owned lakefront lands
  • To address the interests of the public and owners of property in proximity to County-owned lakefront land in maintaining a view of Lake Michigan through County-owned land
  • To prioritize programs and activities in a manner that accounts for the vulnerability and value of coastline resources and County-owned assets

In 2019, Milwaukee County hired the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) to prepare a set of coastline management guidelines intended to be used by County staff to evaluate projects affecting County-owned assets with respect to coastline area impacts.

To develop the guidelines, SEWRPC conducted an inventory of existing conditions, including natural resources and urban development along the Milwaukee County Lake Michigan coastline; a review of existing municipal, state, and federal coastline management guidelines and policies, and best management practices; and an examination of trends in the stability of the Lake Michigan bluffs within the County.

In July of 2019, Milwaukee County held an in-person meeting to engage the municipal staff from all the County’s coastal municipalities in the project.

This project took approximately two years. In 2021, SEWRPC published the Milwaukee County Coastline Management Guidelines/Memorandum Report No. 248, which can be found here.

Milwaukee County bluff

credit: Milwaukee County

Going Forward

Milwaukee County will use the background information on coastal bluffs and the guidelines to evaluate proposed projects on County-owned coastal properties. The guidelines will help the County back up decisions made to protect coastal bluffs from future coastal hazards and water level impacts. The County also plans to develop a summary of the report and guidelines, along with a project checklist, for use in preparing materials for proposed project evaluation.



In addition to partnering with SEWRPC, Milwaukee County Parks worked with the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, and with Milwaukee County municipalities that have Lake Michigan bluff lands within their municipal boundaries. During the process of developing the guidelines, the County shared information and gathered feedback from municipal representatives and community stakeholders regarding coastline management.


Lessons Learned

The Coastal Management Guidelines established a framework from which County Parks would evaluate proposals from property owners, Friends Groups and other organizations, and municipalities. It is proving to be an invaluable tool in guiding applicants and their consultant team in submitting a project request that meets the goals of protecting County-owned assets.

With the guidelines being a recent tool to use in evaluating proposed projects, and with applicants and their consultant teams asking some of the same questions about the process, the County decided to work toward developing a project checklist for applicants to use in preparing materials for the evaluation of proposed projects.