Is the crown jewel of regional rivers in trouble?
No, said the deputy commissioner of the state agency that no longer will be able to veto local government shoreline decisions along the St. Croix River.
Larry Kramka said Friday that this week's Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that takes away the state's ability to govern "setback variances" on waterfront construction won't lead to significant new development pressure on the river.
"All of the requirements remain in effect," said Kramka, of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "The only part that was found illegal was that the DNR had a veto."
Kramka also said that the ruling, written by Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, would not affect the DNR's influence over lakeshore development elsewhere in Minnesota. The ruling applied only to the DNR's ability to "certify" local decisions on rivers covered by the Wild and Scenic River Act, Kramka said.
That includes the St. Croix and Rum rivers, and portions of the Mississippi River.
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the DNR didn't have authority to veto a decision by the Lakeland City Council to allow a setback variance to a large house. Rob Hubbard, who bought the 3.8-acre property in 2006, had wanted to build a portion of his 10,000-square-foot house on the site of a decades-old cabin.
But laws and rules that govern the St. Croix require a farther setback for new construction and Hubbard, who is president of broadcasting and television at Hubbard Broadcasting, asked for a variance.
When an Appeals Court ruled that the DNR lacked authority to veto Lakeland's approval of the Hubbard plan, the DNR, the Sierra Club and the St. Croix River Association appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, in affirming the lower court ruling, overturned a long-term DNR rule.
"This was a case that had been on the books for 30 years," Kramka said. "Nobody was doing it wrong intentionally."
The ruling doesn't change laws and ordinances in place to protect the St. Croix, he said, and the potential now for varied development decisions remains the same as before the ruling.
Kramka said it's too early to know if the DNR will ask the Legislature to restore its ability to regulate building along the St. Croix.
The high court voted 5-0 for the affirmation. Gildea wrote for the majority, which included Paul Anderson, G. Barry Anderson, Christopher Dietzen and Helen Meyer. Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Justice Alan Page took no part.
On Friday, public officials responded cautiously to the ruling.
"I don't want people to overreact," said Brian Zeller, Lakeland's mayor. "We're still very interested in protecting the river, but I believe those decisions should be handled at the local level by elected officials."
Zeller said the City Council has handled as many as a dozen similar variance requests in recent years but said to his knowledge, the Hubbard variance was the only one that the DNR refused to approve in 30 years.
"I think they had an agenda," he said.
Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432