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Information about lake districts

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What is a Lake District?

A lake district is a specialized unit of government designed to manage a lake or group of lakes. One of the major differences between a lake district and a lake association is a lake district’s ability to tax property within the district. Since 1974, when Wisconsin passed legislation allowing the formation of lake districts, over 200 lake communities have formed lake districts.

Lake districts have a unique blend of powers and governance provisions tailored to fit the needs of local lake communities. A lake district is guided and operated by those that live in or own property in the district. A lake district’s day-to-day operations are carried out by a board of commissioners composed of elected volunteers and local officials. The financial direction of the district is determined by district residents (electors) and property owners at an annual meeting. Unlike other governmental units, such as towns or sanitary districts, nonresident property owners have the right to vote and hold office in lake districts.


Lake districts in Wisconsin have tremendous opportunities to address lake and watershed management issues. The Wisconsin Legislature has consistently recognized their potential by giving lake districts legal standing, the ability to tax, and eligibility for cost sharing funds and other state assistance. Governmental units, including lake districts, enjoy the advantages of automatically being exempt from federal income tax.

Since the 1970s, lake districts have shown that small public institutions can achieve remarkable results when it comes to lake management. A key to lake district success is a core of dedicated volunteer leaders willing to learn and work hard to maintain their lake. Through the work of these individuals, Wisconsin communities have identified and addressed threats to water quality, restored habitat, improved recreational boating and generally enhanced the vitality of inland lakes in the state.


A lake district is not a club. Unlike a lake association, a lake district is a governmental body with statutory responsibilities to the resource, local citizens and taxpayers. Like all government entities, the powers and operations of a lake district are set by law with legal responsibilities and consequences designed to ensure that the rights and interests of the public are protected.

How is a Lake District Formed?

Lake Districts are formed through a petition process amongst property owners within the proposed boundaries. In this case, the proposed boundaries include all riparian, or lakefront boundaries. For a Lake District to be formed at least 51% of the property owners within the boundaries must sign the petition. However, Only certain owners of land are qualified to sign a lake district petition: 

  • Each person whose name appears as an owner of real property on the previous year’s tax roll is qualified to sign. 

  • The spouse of a person named on the previous year’s tax roll is eligible to sign the petition, provided that the spouse is “referred to on the tax roll.” For example, some tax rolls include the terms “John Smith and spouse” or “John Smith et ux,” which refer to the spouse even though that person is not explicitly named. 

  • Ownership of more than one parcel of real estate within the proposed district does not entitle the individual to sign more than once. An individual signs the petition only once for all of the parcels he or she may own within the proposed district 

  • A partnership, corporation, trust, foundation, association or local unit of government is treated as a single owner of property entitled to one petition signature. In these cases, the petition must be signed by the authorized representative.3 State and federal governments are not eligible to sign the petition.

What does a Lake District do?

Lake districts can conduct a broad range of activities to manage and enhance the lake or lakes they are organized around. Some typical activities include: 

  1. Understanding the lake’s water quality and its ecosystem by:

    • Monitoring water quality

    • Inventorying and monitoring aquatic plants

    • Mapping the lake’s watershed

    • Identifying pollution sources

    • Developing long range lake management plans

  2. Protecting lake habitat through:

    • Educational efforts

    • Wetland restoration

    • Acquisition of land or conservation easements to protect sensitive areas

    • Erosion control programs

    • Invasive or nuisance aquatic plant management programs (like harvesting, chemical treatment and education)

  3. Enhancing recreational boating and boater safety through:

    • Operation of water safety patrols

    • Boating safety classes

    • Developing water trails

    • Developing informational/educational tools (such as boat landing signs, brochures, or maps)

    • Boating ordinances

  4. ​Providing public services such as:
    • Sewer and water

    • Solid waste/recyclable collection

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