By Eric Hagen
In the 24 years that Lyle Clemensen and his wife have lived along the Mississippi River, he has received 14 pounds of paperwork from the state of Minnesota about potential rule changes or best practices for maintaining a riverfront property.
He knows this because he has kept a file in his Brooklyn Park home and recently weighed the stack of documents after receiving a summary draft of what the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is calling its Mississippi River Critical Area Program.
Clemensen, and many others who live along the 72-mile corridor being studied from the western border of Anoka County to the confluence with the St. Croix River near Hastings, wonder how this will impact them.
“Why make it so complicated?” Clemensen asked.
An overflow crowd packed into Anoka’s Green Haven Golf Club the evening of July 16 to learn more about the proposed rules. The DNR also held open houses in St. Paul July 22 and Hastings July 24.
The state of Minnesota in the 1970s established rules for all property owners along the Mississippi River to abide by, but stipulations addressing issues such as vegetation removal and land alteration are so vague is it is not clear what homeowners can and can’t do.
The 2009 Minnesota Legislature tasked the DNR to make the rules more clear. The 2013 legislature asked the DNR to resume the rulemaking process after the last process lapsed, according to Dan Petrick, the DNR land use specialist who was not around in 2009 but is now in charge of this most recent attempt.
“There’s a lack of trust of the DNR because of the last process,” said Scott Nielsen, a Champlin resident.
Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, encouraged residents to give DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr a chance because he has sought to gather more input from the community than the DNR did during its last rulemaking study in 2009 and 2010. Landwehr was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton in January 2011.
Landwehr acknowledged that the draft document “is very complicated” and said because of this “there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
Anoka County found by reviewing property tax records that 74 percent of all 1,108 residential shoreland properties in the 72-mile study area are located north of I-694 in Anoka and Hennepin counties. Champlin (190), Coon Rapids (142), Anoka (122), and Ramsey (104) have the most residential properties along the river of any of the communities in these two counties.
Petrick said any new rules will have a greater impact in the southern area of this 72-mile corridor and not as much impact on the already developed areas in Anoka and Hennepin counties.
“The main thing we want to do is keep people from clear cutting good quality vegetation,” he said.
Petrick said the biggest proposed change would be requiring property owners to contact city hall before starting any tree removal or expansion project near the river, whether it be a new gazebo, playground, water slide or retaining wall, for example. The DNR may require the property owner to receive a city permit if a yet to be determined amount of soil is disturbed and if the project is happening within 50 feet of the river, within 20 feet of the edge of a slope greater than 18 percent, or within what the DNR is calling the “shore impact zone.”
The “shore impact zone” is half the setback area between a home and the ordinary high water level. The setback would vary depending on which of the newly created DNR river districts the property is located in, Petrick said.
“If we can’t use our land or change it, does that mean we don’t have a river property and will it reduce our taxes?” Coon Rapids resident Karen Shey asked when talking to an ABC Newspapers reporter.
Karen and her husband Jim, who have owned the property on Mississippi Boulevard since 1976, said the DNR should pay for this “shore impact zone” easement.
Karen became agitated when no DNR representatives would directly answer if they could keep their boat dock. Every time somebody asked a question during the public forum portion of the July 16 meeting, they were directed to one of several tables around the Green Haven banquet room to talk with a DNR staff member.
Structures already in place would be grandfathered in and even nonconforming uses could be expanded in some cases, according to Petrick, who told ABC Newspapers that boat dock rules would be governed by local ordinance.
David Bonthuis, a 22-year resident of Anoka, has spent about $40,000 in adding retaining walls, rip rap, terraces and plating sumac on half his property. He is worried what would happen if storm or flood damage necessitated a rebuild.
Minnesota state law allows nonconformities to be repaired or improved, according to a DNR informational sheet. In general, local governments may only impose new conditions on a structure that is destroyed beyond 50 percent of its market value.
The draft rules allow one “shoreline recreation area” per lot no larger than 5,000 square feet and no wider than 25 feet or 12 percent of the lot width, whichever is greater, and not extending more than 25 feet landward from the water. This is an area within the “shore impact zone” where natural vegetation may be cleared for recreational purposes.
Property owners could also have one “water-oriented accessory structure” for every 300 feet of river frontage, each limited to a size of 120 square feet and 12-feet high. Lots smaller than 300 feet would be able to have one structure. The type of structures covered here include gazebos, screen houses, fish houses, pump houses, and detached decks or patios.
Some property owners have feel rip rap or retaining walls are the best way to address erosion. The DNR’s most recent draft requires a permit for this site work, but it “can only be used to correct an erosion problem that cannot be controlled through vegetation or a bioengineered system as determined by the local government.”
Anoka Councilmember Jeff Weaver drew the loudest applause of the evening during the public forum. He questioned why the National Parks Service was involved in what is being called the Visual Resources Protection Plan. Anoka Councilmember Steve Schmidt noted that the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area draft rules say this plan could be subsequently amended without notice to affected property owners.
Weaver invited DNR officials to tour the river with him to see what people have done to care for it and their properties.
“I don’t think we need people telling us what to do,” Weaver said.
Petrick said the National Parks Service only has an informal role and will not be approving any of the new rules.
A draft of the rules can be viewed at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/input/rules/mrcca/index.html.
The deadline to submit comments or questions to the DNR is Aug. 15, but Petrick said there will be more opportunities for public feedback. It will two to three years before residents would begin seeing any rule changes voted on by local city councils, Petrick said.
“There will be a rule,” Schmidt said. “It’s our job to shape it as best we can. If we can’t do it at the city level, the DNR is charged to come up with something and enforce it.”
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org