Dan and Janelle Tepper wanted to build a three-bedroom house on the shore of North Long Lake, but they couldn't squeeze in everything they wanted without breaking the rules. The lot in north-central Minnesota was just too narrow. They needed permission to build 20 feet closer to the lake.
Neighbors protested. They said allowing the Minneapolis buyers to build so close to the lake and a nearby road would pollute the water and flood the road. If the county was going to allow that, two neighbors argued, rules aimed at protecting the lake were not worth keeping.
Unimpressed with the complaints, a land-use board in Crow Wing County unanimously approved the Teppers' request in August. That kind of indulgence is typical in the heart of Minnesota's vacationland, where lakefront development has continued despite the recession. Since 2005, land-use boards in Cass and Crow Wing counties allowed hundreds of home builders to break rules aimed at preserving the state's most valuable natural resource, according to a Star Tribune review of thousands of pages of building records. Altogether, those boards approved nearly nine of every 10 requests to deviate from development standards.
Environmentalists and economists, who have seen land-use boards approve questionable lakefront projects across the state, fear that uncontrolled development will permanently taint Minnesota's vaunted sky-blue waters. They worry about rising pollution levels, leaking septic systems and congested lakes covered by noisy, gas-burning watercraft.
The near-universal approval of variances in Cass and Crow Wing "doesn't surprise me -- it appalls me," said John Erickson, an environmental lawyer who has battled over-development on lakes.
Local officials say they are doing what's best for their constituents. But Patrick Welle, a Bemidji State University environmental economist, said local officials often disregard concerns about overbuilding to pump up their tax base. Property owners, meanwhile, say they want to play on the water, not pollute it.
"Everyone wants a slice of heaven," said former Cass County environmental director John Sumption. "We want to love our lakes to death."
State officials have put 1,205 lakes on a list of "impaired" water bodies, which means pollution levels have reached critical levels. In more than 400 impaired lakes, one of the chief problems is fertilizer runoff, often from the chemically enhanced lawns of lakeside homes. Local officials have struggled for years to find an affordable way to clean those lakes.
Paula West, former executive director of the Minnesota Lakes Association, said obeying development rules that reduce pollution is the best way. "It costs about 20 times more to restore a water body than to prevent harm," she said.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has drafted stricter rules regarding shoreline development and dock construction. Public hearings should start this year, and officials predict an ugly battle between property owners and conservationists.
'You can't deny them'
For decades, Minnesotans have spent their summer vacations in cabins and resorts in Cass and Crow Wing counties, located about 150 miles north of the Twin Cities. With more than 900 lakes, those two counties accounted for most of the $2.2 billion in spending and 6.8 million overnight visits in north-central and western Minnesota from June 2007 to May 2008, according to a recent report conducted for state tourism officials.
About a third of those visitors came from the Twin Cities. Among the most popular destinations is Gull Lake, where there are 19 resorts and about 28 cabins per mile of shoreline, according to the state.
Though the most valuable shoreline in central Minnesota has already been taken, construction continues in one of the state's hottest real estate markets. Between 2000 and 2007, more than 2,500 lakefront lots were created in Cass County, where assessed values on lakefront land more than tripled to $4.8 billion in the past 10 years.
On Pelican Lake, one of the most popular lakes in the Brainerd area, the median sales price of a single family home was $585,000 from 2005 to 2010. That's more than 2 1/2 times the typical price for a home in the Twin Cities. Altogether, Crow Wing property quadrupled in value over the past decade, reaching $12 billion in 2009.
"My parents paid $2 to $3 per foot of lakefront in 1935," said the Rev. Mike Arms, a retired Catholic priest who lives in his family's cabin on Cross Lake. "Lakefront now costs $5,000 to $6,000 per foot."
Buyers who pay big bucks for lakefront real estate don't want to be told what to do with their property, West said. Ann Beaver, a former member of a Crow Wing land-use board, agreed. With so much money at stake, she said, it's hard to say 'no' to projects that skirt the rules.
"One of the prevailing attitudes is that lakeshore is so valuable you can't deny them,'' said Beaver, who served on the board from 2000 to 2006.
The resulting boom hardly resembles the modest cabins of the past. Today, investors pay millions of dollars to build huge homes with vaulted ceilings, wine cellars and massive docks. The quiet ambience of the 1950s is long gone, replaced by the roar of outboards, the plumes of personal watercraft and bays so clogged with upscale homes they could be mistaken for an affluent cul-de-sac in Wayzata.
Property owners say that's a good thing.
Minneapolis attorney Sam Stern, who represents several property owners in north-central Minnesota, said his clients are the "true stewards of the lakes. They've made investments, and it is in their best interest to maintain the quality of the lakes."
State overruled 43 times
To protect the lakes from pollution and over-development, local officials created strict rules governing new construction. For instance, depending on the area, new homes are supposed to be 75 to 200 feet from the water. Lots must meet minimum sizes and widths, and lakefront homes can't top 25 feet in height.
But local officials make frequent exceptions. Out of 781 projects proposed on lakefront land between 2005 and 2010, zoning boards in Cass and Crow Wing counties denied just 91 requests, or 12 percent of the total. On average, that meant homes were built 21 feet closer to the shoreline than rules allowed. Homes also were much bigger than the rules allowed, reducing the amount of vegetation available to filter pollutants flowing into lakes.
Local officials approved 43 projects over the objections of the DNR.
"We fall on the end of the spectrum where variances should only be allowed in cases of extreme hardship," said Tom Hovey, a DNR hydrologist who oversees public waters. "We're trying to protect the scenic qualities of the lakes."
By contrast, local officials seem more worried about creating an "inconvenience" for property owners, West said.
Local officials defended their record. Susan Sundberg, chairwoman of the Cass County Planning Commission, said she feels "absolutely no pressure" to let property owners skirt the rules.
Mark Liedl, land services director for Crow Wing County, said local officials used to have a "gotcha" mentality in dealing with lakeshore development. Now, he said, the county visits a site before a public hearing to help property owners understand what's acceptable. "Most people want to do the right thing," Liedl said.
Liedl said land-use boards don't give breaks without getting something in return. In most cases, he said, property owners agree to pay for storm water management systems and vegetative buffers.
That's not enough for some. Gull Lake resident Tim Yeh sued Cass County in 2001 after local officials allowed a developer to put too many cabins on land near his home. It took six years and thousands of dollars in legal expenses, but Yeh and others ultimately convinced a state judge that the county improperly approved the project. The developer was forced to haul away three fully built luxury cabins, which were relocated several miles away.
Yeh has mixed feelings about the victory. "If I had known at the time I started how much time and effort this would take, I don't think I would have done it,'' he said.
Court creates 'candy store'
Some property owners would rather ask for forgiveness than seek permission before they start construction. In the past five years, a total of 74 lakefront homes received so-called "after-the-fact" variances, records show.
The Minnesota Supreme Court opened the door to such tactics in 2008, when it issued what environmental lawyer Erickson calls the "candy-store-just-got-opened" decision. In that case, the state's highest court said local governments must consider "practical difficulties" when asked to approve after-the-fact variances.
If public officials can't prove a property owner intended to commit a crime, the court ruled, they must consider how much it would cost a landowner to remove, say, a lake-encroaching house. Before, removing unauthorized construction was not considered a hardship.
"You used to look at five things and if any of those were absent, you did not grant the variance," said attorney Scott Anderson, who advises counties. "There isn't a threshold anymore."
Among the projects that received belated approval was a 1,428-square-foot house put 18 feet closer to the lake than it should have been. The owner's excuse: he misinterpreted the rules.
Considering the cost of these projects, which often top $1 million, an after-the-fact variance is a cheap solution. In Crow Wing County, property owners must pay an extra $1,000 if they seek a variance after completing construction. In Cass County, the fees are the same -- $395 -- no matter when a property owner requests a variance.
For a while, one community in Crow Wing County virtually did away with the need for variances. In 2004, the city council in Crosslake decided to abandon state rules that placed sharp limits on builders who wanted to replace old cabins with new construction.
The controversial ordinance allowed Minneapolis plumber Paul Gavic to build his waterfront dream house on Cross Lake. Under state rules, Gavic's house could have been no larger than 2,700 square feet, or the total area of the cabin and other buildings he tore down. The Crosslake ordinance let him build a 6,000 square-foot home just 39.1 feet from the water, even though the state standard is 75 feet.
Gavic doesn't think his home, which sits on a small peninsula of shoreline, will damage the water. "I know there are people who want teeny weenie docks and little wood boats so that every little piece of weed can grow," Gavic said. "That's not how I want to enjoy my property."
Gavic's timing was good. After 30 new homes were approved under the 2004 ordinance, Crosslake voters reelected a mayor who consistently opposed the ordinance and replaced retiring council members with three new members. The city promptly changed its ordinance.
RV park gets a break
Though it happens gradually, unfiltered storm water running into lakes can form algae blooms that suck up oxygen and smother native plants. Fish, in turn, lose a place to eat and grow. Statewide, key lake vegetation has declined by 15 percent since the 1930s, according to Paul Radomski, a DNR research scientist.
"Certainly, we're losing fish and wildlife habitat," Radomski said.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has estimated that 39 percent of lakeside sewage septic systems are failing or at risk of failing. Salt from water softeners pours into lakes, along with invasive species, such as milfoil, that arrive on boats hauled on trailers from the Twin Cities.
Yet land-use boards remain reluctant to control growth. In January, Crow Wing County agreed to let Bob and Patti Young bypass zoning regulations and place a 64-unit RV park on 25 acres of lakefront land that accommodated just two cabins in the 1970s.
Neighbors fought to block the development because they felt the area was already overbuilt, but Bob Young said the lakefront land is too valuable to remain out of commercial use. He believes he will be a good neighbor. "Our business is designed around the water," Young said. "I'm going to do whatever it takes to protect it."
Jay Simon, who once served as a Brainerd planning commissioner and has lived on Round Lake for 30 years, said it would be economic suicide to ban building on the lakes. Still, he hopes local officials start cracking down on those who ask to break the rules.
"The lakes I swam in as a kid in the metro area are now green ooze," Simon said. "And this lake is more polluted than when I moved out here."
Star Tribune interns Ian Larson and Jessica Van Berkel contributed to this story. Jim Spencer • 612-673-4029