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St. Croix issues
The course for the St. Croix is not as clear.
Last month, the Lakeland City Council, ignoring a recommendation by its Planning Commission, approved five variances for construction of a new home on a bluff overlooking the St. Croix which, among other things, allowed the home to be taller and closer to the bluff’s edge than the rules allow. It was the first such zoning case along the St. Croix River to draw the DNR’s objections since a landmark Minnesota Supreme Court case in 2010, also involving Lakeland and an 8,000-square-foot riverside home of broadcasting magnate Rob Hubbard.
From 1972 until the Hubbard case, the DNR operated under the presumption that it had implicit veto power over such variances, Shodeen said. The state Supreme Court said the agency had overreached, and that the Legislature needed to make that authority explicit.
Until that happens, the DNR’s only recourse is to challenge variances in the courts. Given the Hubbard decision, and the time, money and effort those cases would consume, the legal bar for a local government has now been lowered. Despite its objections to the zoning, the DNR last week opted against taking the city to court.
In the past, Shodeen said, it was extremely rare for the DNR not to sign off on a local variance.
“It was more of a partnership, it was a collaboration,” she said. “What changed, in my opinion, was property rights. The property rights movement has really influenced City Council decisions.”
Development pressure has intensified on the St. Croix River over the past decade, and with it more contentious issues over compliance with zoning rules.
“What I’m most worried about is that our standards are becoming so watered down that there are no standards any more,” said Shodeen.
Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association, said her advocacy group is likely to push legislation in the upcoming session of the Legislature to give the DNR that explicit authority the court says it lacks.
State Sen. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, introduced such a bill following the Hubbard decision when she was serving in the House, but it didn’t get out of committee. She has not been approached about reviving the bill, but remains concerned about protecting the St. Croix.
Putting the decisions for development along the river in the hands of local leaders invites pressure from developers that might be harder to withstand than a state agency like the DNR, said Scalze, who served 24 years on the Little Canada City Council.
“A local city council can say ‘One house, what difference will that make?’ But what if everyone said that? Pretty soon we’d look like the Amalfi coast,” along the Italian Riviera, said Scalze. “There’s a reason for having the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. If you don’t believe in it, you shouldn’t have it, and everybody can just do what they want.”
Shodeen, who has been with the DNR for 34 years, worries about the river’s future.
“How many metro areas are there where you can canoe on a resource like the St. Croix?” Shodeen said. “It’s worth protecting. It’s worth fighting for.”
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson