Information for Lower St. Croix Riverway property owners

a boat is stationed on the shoreline with tall trees in the background

Due to the cooperative management approach of the Lower St. Croix, riverway protections are heavily dependent on the collective stewardship of property owners. The single most important thing you and your neighbors can do to protect scenic character and water quality is to maintain and/or restore natural vegetation along the shoreline.

Natural vegetation:

  • Preserves the scenic quality of the riverway
  • Holds soil in place due to increasingly intensive rain events, wakes, and fluctuating water levels
  • Filters out nutrients, which accelerate algae blooms
  • Slows runoff
  • Provides habitat
  • Preserves property values

As a landowner, your first point of contact for all development-related questions should be with your local permitting and zoning authority – typically your city or county. Answers to the questions below are provided in the context of the statewide minimum standards. Local ordinances are often 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.

Watch this animated video about shoreline restoration and stewardship created in collaboration with the Anoka County Water Resource Outreach Collaborative and several local Lake Associations.

Frequently Asked Questions

Riverway and District Boundaries

Is my lot within the Lower St. Croix Scenic Riverway?

The DNR maintains an interactive mapper detailing the boundary of the Lower St. Croix Scenic Riverway.

DNR Shoreland Classifications and Special Waterbody Designations

What district am I in?

Dimensional standards and allowable uses vary based on whether a property is located in a rural or urban district. These are detailed in Minnesota Rules, part 6105.0360.

Land Uses

How are uses regulated in the Riverway?

Uses within the lower riverway are guided based on what was allowed at the time the riverway regulations were established, in order to preserve the historic character of the communities. For the most part, that includes single-family residential, home-based businesses, agriculture, conservancy and limited governmental uses. All other uses are prohibited. In some limited cases, cities may allow other uses that were expressly allowed in the city’s zoning ordinance in effect at the time riverway protections were established in 1974. These exceptions only apply within urban districts.

My property has a scenic easement on it. How does that influence what I can do?

The National Park Service holds a significant amount of scenic easements – which are concentrated in the area between Taylors Falls and Stillwater. These scenic easements limit allowable use, activity, and development rights, and are primarily designed to preserve the scenic impacts based on what can be seen from the water. Each easement is slightly different, and may influence things such as building height, building placement, and vegetation removal. The states possess a limited amount of scenic easements south of Stillwater, but to a far lesser extent than the National Park Service.

Dimensional Standards

What setbacks standards apply?

Minimum setbacks from the ordinary high water level (OHWL) and from “bluff lines” vary based on the district. Minimum setbacks from the OHWL for all structures and appurtenances range from 100 feet (urban districts) to 200 feet (rural districts). Minimum setbacks from “bluff lines” – which is the point at which a slope becomes less than 12 percent–range from 40 feet (urban) to 100 feet (rural). Setbacks also apply to septic tanks and soil absorption systems.

Are there any limitations to impervious surfaces on my lot?

In order to minimize overland runoff and prevent the riverway from being over-developed, the lower riverway rules limit the total coverage of impervious surfaces to 20 percent of the lot area. Impervious surfaces include rooftops, decks, sidewalks, patios, swimming pools, driveways or other similar surfaces.

A number of watershed districts within the riverway also enforce unique stormwater or “Minimum Impact Design Standards” (MIDS), which are triggered for new and/or fully reconstructed impervious surfaces. These standards are typically aimed at reducing runoff through a variety of infiltration techniques.

Are there any height limits?

Structures height is limited to 35 feet, as measured from the average ground level at the building line to the uppermost point of the structure. This is to preserve the natural character of the riverway and keep development below the treeline.

Accessory Structures

Can I build an accessory structure by the water?

No. Accessory structures are subject to the same setback standards as primary structures.

Can I build a guest cottage or secondary dwelling unit?

In most cases, no. Only when a city has explicitly allowed such historical uses at the time riverway protections were established in 1974 may such uses be permitted.

Substandard or Nonconforming Structures

What is a substandard structure?

Substandard structures are those in existence prior to the effective date of a community’s riverway ordinance, but do not meet one or more dimensional standards. The rules for expansions and replacements of “substandard structures” are very different than those for “nonconforming structures,” which apply everywhere else in the state.

Can I expand my substandard structure?

The state riverway rules allow for lateral or vertical additions, but only if they are visually inconspicuous during summer months when viewed from the river, and may never encroach further into the minimum setback. To preserve redevelopment potential, property owners should plant screening consisting of multiple vegetative layers (i.e., trees, shrubs, and perennials) well in advance of any expansion application.

Local ordinances will have further limitations for structures located on small “substandard lots.” Most local ordinances identify a minimum size requirement substandard lots considered suitable for building or expansion.

Can I replace my substandard structure?

Replacement of substandard structures for any purpose requires they be rebuilt in conformance with riverway ordinance standards. Riverway regulations are far more permissive for expansions than replacements.

Vegetation and Land Alteration

Can I clear vegetation for a view, water access or otherwise?

Vegetative cutting is strictly regulated within the minimum setback area from the Ordinary High Water Level (OHWL), within 40 feet from bluff lines, and on all slopes greater than 12 percent. All cutting activities within these areas requires a permit from your local government.

Within these areas, vegetation that is screening a structure from view from the river may not be cut. Trees greater than six inches in diameter at breast height may not be cut. Trees and shrubs may not be removed to expand a yard. Diseased trees may be removed when their removal is in the public interest.

Stairways and lifts may be constructed to accommodate access to the water, provided the disruption of vegetation and topography is minimized.

To what extent am I allowed to disturb soil on my lot?

Grading, filling, excavation, or changing the topography in any way requires a permit throughout the lower riverway. For any such activities, disturbance is required to be minimized, ground exposed for as short a time as possible, and erosion prevention measures must be employed. Slopes greater than 12 percent may not be altered in a way that erosion and visual scars may result. Permanent vegetative cover must be established upon completion.

Can I build a stairway?

Stairways and lifts may be constructed to accommodate access to the water, provided the disruption of vegetation and topography is minimized.

How can I stabilize my eroding shoreline?

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 soil and water conservation district or watershed district, as other factors may be contributing to the erosion.

When riprap or hard armoring is appropriate, permits can be obtained from the local government and the DNR. It is generally recommended to further stabilize the shoreline with deep rooted and woody vegetation on the landward side of the riprap.

How can I restore vegetation on my shoreline and bluff?

The DNR offers a variety of materials geared toward the environmentally conscious landowner. Most such improvements will require a permit, so it is best to coordinate stewardship activities with your local permitting authority.

Building Color

What colors can I paint my house?

The exterior color of structures and roofs is required to be of earth or summer vegetation tones unless it is completely screened from the river by topography. Acceptable colors include these Color Swatches, which will satisfy these requirements.


My proposal doesn't meet requirements outline in the local ordinance. What can I do?

If you think your development plans won’t meet the local riverway 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 some kind of unique site constraints, then it may only be approved if through a variance meeting the Statutory criteria in Minnesota Statutes, Section 394.27 (for counties) or Section 462.357 (for municipalities). However, variances may not circumvent the general purpose and intent of the lower riverway standards.


My local government or neighbor is proposing something that seems excessive. What can I do to prevent this?

Each local government is required by state law to enforce their zoning ordinance, including their riverway ordinance. The DNR works with local governments (counties, cities, and townships) to ensure that their riverway ordinances comply with the Lower St. Croix Scenic Riverway rules, and to provide them with training and guidance to ensure that they are enforcing their ordinances to meet state 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.

Any development or activities that does not meet the standards in a community’s ordinance can only be approved with a variance, which requires 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 riverway standards are adequately enforced.


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