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Photo of a lake.

Minding Our Shores

New statewide standards for shoreland development aim to better protect the things we love about rivers and lakes.

By Mary Hoff

When Jack and Judy Wallschlaeger first started bringing their two children to Crow Wing County's Whitefish Lake in the 1960s, it was a clean and relatively quiet place. The tiny white-and-green cabin they rented each summer on the south shore was just right for swimming, fishing, and other memorable moments that come with being "up at the lake."

But over time, change came to Whitefish. Quaint summer cabins and family resorts started to disappear. In their place rose what Jack Wallschlaeger calls "starter castles," huge four-season homes with manicured lawns, paved driveways, and abundant wastewater.

Gradually, Wallschlaeger noticed the water in his beloved lake becoming less clear. Algae and aquatic plants increasingly snagged his fishing line and got tangled up in his outboard motor. The rocks along the shore started coating over with slime.

"We attribute the changes to people," he says. "We're allowing more water to run into the lake carrying pollutants."

The woes of Whitefish Lake are far from isolated. Throughout Minnesota, shorelands have faced unprecedented development pressure over the past two decades. And state demographers anticipate population growth of 35 percent or more in lake-rich counties during the next 25 years. On already populated lakes, little cottages are being replaced with hefty houses often accompanied by "clean" shorelines that increase erosion and paved driveways and patios that accelerate runoff into the lake.

With more people fulfilling the Minnesota dream of lakefront living, water quality leaves much to be desired. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's 2008 list of impaired waters showed that 510 lakes and 338 rivers failed to meet one or more state water-quality standards for criteria such as toxic pollutants, turbidity, eutrophication, and bacteria.

To better protect water resources in the face of this development boom, the Minnesota Legislature in 2007 directed the Department of Natural Resources to update its state minimum standards for shoreland management. First set into place in 1970 and revised in 1989, the current standards give local governments a foundation on which to build their own—stricter, if they wish—ordinances governing development around lakes and rivers. But ecological and hydrological studies have shown that these standards no longer fit the times.

"One critical task that we, the citizens of Minnesota, must relearn is how to handle nature gently," DNR research scientist Paul Radomski says. "This includes use of shoreline buffers, reducing runoff, and protection of near-shore fish and wildlife habitat."

This spring, after three years of gathering input from scientists, citizens, local government officials, and business owners, the DNR is finalizing new, improved minimum shoreland management standards. In March the DNR completed the draft standards and an accompanying Statement of Need and Reasonableness, which explains the standards and why they are needed. After signing by the DNR commissioner, the documents are sent to the Governor's Office for approval to proceed to public hearings. The shoreland management standards hearings will likely take place later this year with final approval by the DNR and the governor after that. DNR officials expect the final product will include science-based provisions aimed at reducing pollution and protecting natural areas.

Radomski is hopeful about the new standards. "I'm thinking we'll see improvement," he says. "I have hope that we can reverse the negative trends we're seeing across the state of Minnesota."

Higher Standards.

The proposed revised standards incorporate new knowledge about waterways and about policy development to better protect waterways from habitat destruction, sewage, chemical and sediment input from storm water, and other development impacts, as well as from agricultural pollution. They include considerations for bluffs and for particularly sensitive shoreland of lakes, trout streams, and smaller lakes near cities and towns. They better meet the unique circumstances of resorts, many of which were built years ago and would have a hard time meeting new standards when upgrading their facilities. And they provide flexibility to meet the different levels of water protection goals for different kinds of lakes while accommodating local circumstances and investments lakeshore owners have already made in their property.

Among the highlights:

Shoreland classification. Like the old standards, the proposed standards divide Minnesota's public waters into classes depending on how developed or environmentally fragile they are, and treat the different classes differently. The new standards add a new class—natural environment special shallow lakes—that can be used to provide more stringent standards for large, shallow, sensitive lakes. A new cold-water class is proposed for designated trout streams, among the most fragile of Minnesota's public waters.

Lot size. The old standards specified 126 different lot size and width standards for different circumstances. The new standards reduce that to 23. They also are somewhat more restrictive, with less opportunity for tiny lots that crowd lakes and increase people pressure on them. Built-in flexibility, however, accommodates special lot size and density considerations of resorts and planned developments.

Natural areas. The standards place a premium on protecting natural vegetation that filters and prevents nutrients, sediment, and other contaminants from entering lakes and rivers. Both new developments and redevelopments must include natural areas. In new developments, landowners must maintain trees, shrubs, and natural ground cover near bluffs and steep slopes and in 50-foot strips along shores. The minimum standards encourage but don't require existing lots with homes to create such a buffer zone to maintain wildlife habitat and to guard against erosion and pollution from phosphorus and other nutrients. Natural shorelines are strongly favored, with riprap and retaining walls acceptable only under very limited circumstances.

Sewage systems. Depending on the type, new sewage treatment systems must be at least 50 to 150 feet from the water's edge. Existing systems must be brought into compliance before property changes hands or permits or variances are issued.

Structures. The proposed standards make it simpler to determine the required minimum distance between structures and shores or bluffs. In some cases they increase the minimum setback for new structures. Structures related to water use, such as storage sheds, have to be smaller than the 1989 standards allow. Docks and other in-water structures must comply with the public waters rules.

Storm water. To minimize the amount of pollutant-laden water running into lakes and rivers, the standards restrict the amount of pavement and other impervious surface that may be added to a lot. They also promote the use of technologies such as rain gardens and pervious pavement that encourage water to soak into the ground rather than run into surface waters.

Land disturbance. Excavating, grading, filling, and other land-disturbing activities are subject to limits to help keep sediment and pollutants out of surface waters.

Resorts. In recognition of their unique role in Minnesota's economy and recreational picture, resorts are no longer lumped with other developments for shoreland planning purposes. As a result, they have some additional options for how they achieve the water protection goals of the standards—for example, restoring vegetation as they upgrade cabins close to the lake.

Lake access. To prevent overuse of small lakes, only developments on large lakes and major rivers may include private lake access for non-riparian lots (without shoreline).

Creative subdivisions. The standards encourage the use of conservation subdivisions—subdivisions with compact clusters of homes and large, shared natural areas. They also accommodate other resource-protecting ways of arranging new developments, such as allowing developers to design their own strategies if they meet public goals.

Lakeside Views.

Reactions to the proposed standards have been diverse but generally favorable. Ed Fussy, owner of a family fishing resort near Bemidji, represented the Congress of Minnesota Resorts through the standard development process. He says resort owners are happy to see standards that accommodate their needs without compromising the goal of protecting water quality.

"That resource is our livelihood," Fussy says. "We want to keep that lake as healthy as possible." The resort congress offers education on the state standards, but a resort owner still needs to check with the individual county because it can choose to make its standards more strict than the state minimum.

The new standards "are a significant improvement, head and shoulders above the previous ones," says Marian Bender, executive director of Minnesota Waters, a nonprofit water-quality advocacy group. "If we want to protect these icons of the state, we need to really pay attention to land use at the county level, even at the landowner level. I think these rules acknowledge that and move that forward and bring it to more people's attention.

"How much you pave, how much you mow, how you treat your septic system: People have to realize their actions have consequences."

Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy natural resource scientist Henry VanOffelen calls the proposed revision "a great step forward for protecting our water resources."

Some county officials have expressed concern about managing an unfunded mandate in economically tough times. But Fillmore County Commissioner Duane Bakke says he thinks his largely agricultural county is "going to be in pretty good shape" under the new standards, with landowner awareness being the main hurdle. And if the experience of Cass County is any example, the benefits of the new standards could be bountiful. The county's wastewater management and lakeshore subdivisions, for example, served as models for the state proposal, and county planner Paul Fairbanks says that though reactions have varied, overall "they've been positive."

Color in the Outlines.

Chances are good that the draft standards will become the new shoreland standards by the end of the year. Then the process of updating Minnesota's approximately 300 local shoreland ordinances will begin. To ensure a smooth adoption schedule, the DNR will notify local governments in phases. State law gives a local government a year after notification to update its shoreland ordinances. Some local governments are already assessing their ordinances and preparing amendments.

Once the draft standards are finalized, VanOffelen says local governments will color in the outlines with local ordinances. And those decisions will depend at least to some extent on the degree to which local residents pay attention—and participate.

"An update of the rules is not the end of the discussion," VanOffelen says. "Citizens need to be engaged at the local level to make sure that local governments, ultimately responsible for shoreland zoning, upgrade their ordinances, that there's follow-up after the new ordinances are in place, that those ordinances are abided by, and there's enforcement and involvement by DNR."

Biz Clark, landowner on Poplar Lake along the Gunflint Trail and chair of the Cook County Coalition of Lake Associations, is pleased with the progress toward new standards. But she also says that for citizens who care about lakes, the biggest job lies ahead. "Who's going to police this? That's the next issue," she says. "That's why lake associations are going to have a great interest in what comes out in the final [standards].

"We're the eyes and ears of the lakes. We're the ones that know what's going on."

Editor's note:

Find the latest information about the shoreland rules.

If you own lakeshore property and you want to get involved, join your lake association or start one if need be. Lakeshore owner or not, you can contact your county, city, or township to see what it's doing about lakeshore zoning standards.

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