5-foot strip of land on Medicine Lake provokes two-year war

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2014 - 7:54 AM
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Dan Gustafson bought a 5-foot strip of land, about as wide as his arms are stretched, between two homes on the shoreline of Medicine Lake.

Photo: Richard Sennott • richard.sennott@startribune.com,

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Dan Gustafson bought a 5-foot-wide sliver of land wedged between two homes on Medicine Lake just so he could dock his boat there.

The narrow strip of land on the popular Twin Cities lake — a leftover old fire lane — is close to his Minnetonka home, he said, cheaper than buying a lake home and more cost-effective long term than paying thousands of dollars a year in boat slip rentals.

But two years later, he’s still unable to build the dock. The city of Plymouth says zoning rules restrict Gustafson from having a dock and it’s too close to his neighbors.

“We’re trying to do what everybody on the lake and across the state does,” he said. “You own lakeshore, so you want to put up a dock.”

It’s the latest clash between water rights and regulations in Minnesota, where access to water is cherished and the scramble to get a slice of it is intensified with rising lake home prices.

On Wednesday, Gustafson is making his case to the city again, arguing he’s being deprived of his riparian rights as a lake property owner.

“I bought it with the expectation I’d put a dock on it,” he said.

The 5-foot-wide by 100-foot-long property is off South Shore Drive along Medicine Lake, a 925-acre lake near Hwy. 169. Gustafson bought it in 2012 for $30,000, thinking the “anomaly” was the perfect permanent place to dock the 16-foot boat he, his wife and 3- and 1-year-old daughters take to swim, water ski and fish on the lake — without buying a lake home or renting a boat slip.

The city says many lakes used to have these old fire lanes, but most of them were bought up by homeowners. This one remained. Gustafson said the previous owner had a dock on it without issue.

But the city rejected his request, followed by the City Council denying his appeal in October, saying that a dock is an accessory use. City code prevents accessory structures without a principal building — like a house — in that residential zoning area. To clarify the rule, the City Council updated its city code Tuesday to explicitly list docks as an accessory structure.

Changing the rules

Now, Gustafson, a print shop owner, is returning to City Hall on Wednesday, armed with a thick blue binder full of legal paperwork. He’ll ask the Planning Commission to change zoning rules to allow the dock as a principal structure and without setback rules.

In a city report, Planning Manager Barbara Thomson points out that the city already allows docks on some vacant land, and recommends the Planning Commission approve the change to allow docks without a principal building in that particular zoning area.

But she also recommends that docks be set back 6 feet or more from side lot lines — a requirement Gustafson’s 5-foot-wide property wouldn’t meet.

In an interview, she said the setback rule is the same for any accessory structure like a shed, and is needed to prevent conflicts between land uses.

In city documents, City Attorney Roger Knutson advised the commission to make a decision, “based upon public policy and good planning not upon the legal issues” Gustafson raised.

Gustafson argues that common laws give him the right to put up a dock on his shoreline property. He points to a 2006 case where the state Court of Appeals agreed with a Greenwood couple that the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District couldn’t require them to remove a dock on their 12-foot property, even though it didn’t meet 5-foot setback rules.

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