Tom Fix bought a riverfront home in West Lakeland Township in 2011. A Minnesota native now living near Seattle, Fix and his wife, Grace, have long dreamed of moving back to the state with their young family and into a home along the St. Croix River.

But recently, they’ve seen that dream dashed by zoning rules designed to shield the lower St. Croix from unhindered development. The Fixes have been locked in a clash with Washington County zoning officials ever since their plans to remodel an older home evolved into a teardown. Tom Fix is so upset, he said, that he plans to sue the county within the next few weeks.

“We’ve been planning on building for a long time,” he said. “One big difficulty is that, as homeowners up and down the St. Croix, we really don’t know what our rights are anymore.”

A flurry of home teardowns and remodels along the St. Croix River that fly in the face of local zoning rules is picking up pace, contributing to a deepening clash of interests in cities along the river.

Counting the Fixes’ plans, there are at least three other teardown or remodeling projects in the works, including one that goes before the Lake St. Croix Beach City Council on Monday night. That plan seeks variances that would transform a single-story, 680-square-foot home built in 1943 into a larger, two-story structure.

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), along with the St. Croix River Association, has lodged its objections to the plan — contending, among other things, that the project amounts to a teardown instead of a remodel with less-restrictive rules. At least one neighbor opposes the plan, but others are supportive.

“They want to protect the river, but the way they’re going about it is all wrong,” Fix said of a frustrating process that has kept him from pursuing what he considers a reasonable building plan, but which has now left him with a home that was ruined after broken pipes caused water damage.

Variances sail through

But advocates for the river say the dismantling of oversight authority for zoning variance decisions by the DNR in a landmark 2010 state Supreme Court decision threatens the river valley’s future, potentially leading to unfettered construction that even now is changing the river’s character, which is protected by federal law.

“One of the big concerns is that you have an aging population of people who have owned property along the river and have lived with the requirements of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and have learned why it’s important to maintain things like the bluff setback,” said Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association. “But as property changes hands, suddenly you have a whole group of people who don’t have that history, and need to understand it.”

Since the court ruled the DNR did not have the oversight authority the agency thought it had over zoning enforcement under the 1972 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, no request for house project variances that failed to comply with those regulations has been turned down.

Until the recent flurry of activity, there had been only three such house construction projects after broadcasting magnate Rob Hubbard won a 2010 case allowing him variances to build an 8,000-square-foot home at the bluff’s edge.

Two factors suggest that development pressure along the river will only continue in the coming months: an improved housing market and a failure by the Legislature, for a second time, to address the issue of zoning oversight.

Demand for housing

A slew of “For Sale” signs for older homes along the river popped up recently as pent-up demand in that slice of the market, stalled by the recession, is unleashed.

As for the Legislature, the state Supreme Court’s ruling did not say the DNR shouldn’t have oversight for zoning on the lower St. Croix, only that its authority wasn’t specifically spelled out in law. The ruling said the Legislature needed to make that clear.

During the 2011 session and again this year, proposals were offered to do just that. But in an election year filled with potential controversies, this year’s attempt died quietly.

Craig Johnson, a lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities — which, along with groups representing counties and townships, opposed the original wording of this year’s bill — said the primary issue was that “local government decisions could be tabled or vetoed by a single DNR employee.” That lack of accountability, Johnson said, would effectively disenfranchise local residents. Further, he said, local officials are closer to the issues and concerns in their communities.

Even without having its oversight authority spelled out, he added, the DNR can still go to court to challenge variance decisions.

The Hubbard decision, however, has rendered that option virtually moot. And there is clearly resentment, especially in more conservative communities, about the DNR having a hand in what is seen by many as an issue better left to local government.

But river towns don’t function in isolation, Ryun said. That is one reason she said her group is proposing an alternative to resolving variance conflicts that bypasses legislative action in favor of a team approach that draws in perspectives of landowners, developers, local governments, environmental advocates, the DNR, National Park Service and others.

Using grants from the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (money from lottery proceeds), she said, that team approach could protect the shore land of the lower St. Croix, with residents themselves being the river’s first line of defense.

On its face, Fix said such an approach could remove the inherent conflict that has derailed his family’s dream.

“The river needs to be preserved,” said Fix, who describes himself as a staunch environmentalist. “But it will never be preserved with such head-butting antagonism.”