As a landowner, your first point of contact for all development-related questions should be with your local permitting and zoning authority - whether city, county, or township. Answers to the questions below are provided in the context of the statewide minimum standards. Your local ordinance may be more restrictive than the statewide minimum standards. Your local zoning official will be able to inform you of other regulations that may apply to your project.
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The state shoreland rules establish minimum setbacks from the ordinary high water level (OHWL) of lakes and rivers, and from the top of bluffs. The setback provisions are intended to keep buildings (including homes, garages, sheds and other structures), decks, impervious surfaces, septic systems and other development activity away from the shore.
Setbacks vary depending on the shoreland classification of the water body, and whether or not the lot is serviced by sewer. Check with your local planning and zoning administrator to find out what shoreland setbacks apply to your property.
The location of a bluff will restrict building placement and certain vegetation and land alteration activities. The shoreland rules refer to bluffs as any slope draining towards a waterbody that averages at least 30 percent over 25 vertical feet, except for an area with an average slope of less than 18 percent over a distance of at least 50 feet. The state shoreland rules require a structure setback from the top of bluff of 30 feet.
A surveyor can help determine the exact boundaries of a bluff, top/toe of bluff, and bluff impact zone.
The shoreland rules allow each lot to have one water-oriented accessory structure within the required setback from the ordinary high water level (OHWL), provided it is:
- no larger than 250 square feet,
- located at least 10 feet from the OHWL,
- less than 10 feet in height, and
- not connected to sewer and water.
The structure must also meet floodplain elevation requirements. Check with your local planning and zoning administrator to verify what is allowed on your property under the local shoreland ordinance.
The shoreland rules allow these units as long as the lot size meets the minimum lot size requirements for additional units. A guest cottage may not cover more than 700 square feet and not exceed 15 feet in height. It is best to verify these provisions in your local shoreland ordinance.
In order to minimize overland runoff and reduce the amount of contaminants to enter a body of water, the state shoreland rules limit the total coverage of impervious surfaces to 25 percent of the lot area. Impervious surfaces include rooftops, decks, sidewalks, patios, swimming pools, driveways or other similar surfaces.
Check with your local planning and zoning administrator to verify the limits allowed on your property under the local shoreland ordinance.
Height limits in shoreland areas are put in place to preserve the natural character on a body of water and are meant to keep development below the treeline. The state shoreland rules establish that all structures in residential districts in cities, except churches and nonresidential agricultural structures, must not exceed 25 feet in height.
Check with your local planning and zoning administrator to verify the height allowed on your property.
All structures are required to meet floodplain standards in areas where a floodplain is mapped. Where floodplain is not mapped, the elevation to which the lowest floor (including basement) is placed or flood-proofed must be at least three feet above the ordinary high water level or highest known water level, whichever is greater. Check with your local planning and zoning administrator to verify the required elevation on your property.
The state shoreland rules also require that any grading or filling of wetlands must meet or exceed the wetland protection standards under Minnesota Rules, Chapter 8420.
State shoreland rules prohibit intensive vegetation clearing in the shore impact zones, bluffs impact zones and steep slopes.
Steep slopes are those that average 12 percent or more over a 50 foot horizontal distance.
The shore impact zone is half the distance of the structure setbacks (see diagram).
The bluffs impact zone encompasses slopes over 30 percent over a 25 foot rise, and includes all applicable setbacks.
Intensive clearing is allowed outside of these areas for residential lots. The DNR recommends to preserve and enhance vegetation near the shore to the greatest extent possible to reduce soil erosion and the movement of sediment into the water. This is an important strategy to help protect water quality, as well as the natural character of the waterbody and habitat.
Limited clearing and trimming of trees and shrubs in the shore impact zones, bluff impact zones, and steep slopes is allowed to provide a view to the water from the principal dwelling and to accommodate the placement of stairways, landings, lifts, picnic areas, access paths.
Check with your local planning and zoning administrator to verify the limitations on vegetation removal for your property.
Grading, filling, and excavations for the purposes of erecting permitted structures or sewage treatment systems do not require a separate grading and filling permit.
A grading and filling permit is required if either
- more than 10 cubic yards of material is moved on steep slopes or within shore/bluff impact zones (these features are described in previous question);
- or more than 50 cubic yards of material is moved in any other shoreland area. Land alterations are always required to minimize erosion and sediment runoff.
Check with your local planning and zoning administrator to verify the limitations on land disturbance for your property.
Any grading or filling of wetlands must meet or exceed the wetland protection standards under Minnesota Rules, Chapter 8420.
The use of stairways, lifts and landings is preferred when planning for access up and down bluffs and steep slopes to shore areas. Stairways and lifts must be no wider than four feet on residential lots and placed in the most visually inconspicuous portions of the lot. Landings for stairways and lifts on residential lots should not exceed 32 square feet. Canopies or roofs are not allowed on these structures. Your local planning and zoning administrator will be able to verify local design guidelines for stairways.
The DNR recommends a natural approach to shoreline stabilization through the establishment and maintenance of natural vegetation. Aquatic vegetation, woody debris and near-shore vegetation are some of the best resources for protecting a shoreline from wave and ice erosion, and also provide important habitat for fish and wildlife.
River and stream erosion is often a natural process that may require consultation with your local watershed district, as other factors may be contributing to the erosion.
The state shoreland rules allow the placement of riprap in certain cases by obtaining permits from the local government and the DNR.
Under state law, your site may remain as it is. Future vegetation clearing would have to comply with the local shoreland ordinance. A single nonconforming characteristic of a property does not mean that the entire property is “nonconforming.”
Single nonconforming lots that were legally established prior to shoreland regulations may be allowed as building sites without a variance, provided all setback and impervious surface standards can be met and a class one sewage treatment system can be accommodated.
If you own more than one contiguous, nonconforming lot, the two lots must be combined so they equal a conforming lot as much as possible.
Minnesota Statute (MS 462.357, Subd. 1e ) states that existing nonconforming structures may be continued, including through repair, replacement, restoration, maintenance, or improvement. Generally, under state law, any alteration or addition to a nonconforming structure is allowed only where the construction will not increase the nonconformity. An expansion is not allowed within the shore impact zone or bluff impact zone - which is half of the distance of the structure setback. Legal nonconformities in floodplain areas have more limitations because federal rules are more stringent than state law. Most notably, improvements to nonconformities in floodplain areas are limited to 50 percent of their current market value.
Check with your local planning and zoning office to verify what improvements are allowed on your property.
The state shoreland rules provide that if the existing coverage on a shoreland lot exceeds 25 percent imperviousness, no new addition can be allowed unless it is expanded vertically, as a second story, rather than out to the side of the existing structure. To meet this, property owners can consider reducing a different impervious surface, such as shortening or narrowing a driveway or removing a storage building. Check with your local planning and zoning office to verify.
Under the state shoreland rules, nonconforming structures that don’t meet current setbacks may have limited deck additions if there is no reasonable alternative location for a deck. Deck additions may only encroach up to 30 feet toward the shore or 15 percent of the structure setback, whichever is more restrictive.
Check with your local planning and zoning office to determine what local shoreland standards apply to your property.
If you think your development plans won’t meet the local shoreland requirements, meet with your local planning and zoning office BEFORE you start making plans or apply for a building permit. Local staff can identify all required setbacks and other dimensional standards, and help you design your project to meet those standards.
If it is not possible to meet all required standards due to unique site constraints, then talk to local staff about applying for a variance. Variances may only be granted in accordance with Minnesota Statutes, Section 394.27 (for counties) or Section 462.357 (for municipalities), and may not circumvent the general purpose and intent of the shoreland standards.
Each local government is required by state law to enforce their zoning ordinance, including the shoreland ordinance. The DNR works with local governments (counties, cities, and townships) to ensure that their shoreland ordinances comply with the state shoreland rules, and to provide them with training and guidance to ensure that they are enforcing their ordinances to meet state shoreland standards. Citizens often assume that the DNR has significant regulatory oversight of the shoreland program. The DNR has the same authority as any other party to appeal local decisions such as variances.
In all cases, a project requiring a variance must be approved at a public hearing. Interested parties are encouraged to attend these hearings to voice their concerns and influence public decision-making. Engagement with local officials can be a very effective way to ensure that shoreland standards are adequately enforced.
The DNR offers a variety of materials geared toward the environmentally conscious landowner. Many improvements will require a permit, so it is best to coordinate stewardship activities with your local permitting authority.