For the second time in three years, the city of Lakeland and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are on a possible legal collision course that could have broader implications for development along the entire St. Croix River.
For a second time, the City Council on Tuesday approved plans for a two-story river bluff home with a design that doesn’t conform with state rules, including those regarding building height and proximity to the bluff’s edge.
Earlier this year, the council overruled its own planning commission in approving the plans, prompting a threatened lawsuit by the DNR.
It’s 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, finding that the DNR did not have authority to supersede local zoning decisions under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act — which protects the St. Croix.
The state court said the Legislature has to explicitly give that authority over zoning rules to the DNR, which it has not done.
In 2011, the Legislature also made it easier to get zoning rule variances by allowing them to be granted if it’s shown that a property presents “practical difficulties” to comply, which also played in the City Council’s decision and may indicate the strength of Lakeland’s legal position.
The Hubbard ruling — hailed by property-rights and small-government advocates but decried by environmentalists — has put the DNR in the position of fighting local zoning decisions affecting the river through the courts.
The DNR prepared its first such post-Hubbard lawsuit against Lakeland in July, but held off filing it in hopes of reaching a compromise with the city and the homeowners, Kathleen and Michael Quinn.
A riverside dream
The Quinns bought the white, one-story walkout in 2011, intending to tear it down and build their dream house using the old building’s footprint. The new design is a two-story Prairie Style design, also a walkout with a three-season porch and a three-stall garage.
The earth tones of the house, and its entire design, were aimed at blending in with the surroundings. Kathleen Quinn said.
“We believe the design that we chose represented a vast improvement over the current structure on the property,” she said, adding: “Quite frankly, we were shocked and disappointed by the actions of the DNR.”
The tree canopy of the bluff obscures most of the existing home, and that won’t change with the new building, added Michael Quinn.
“I would suggest we are going to be less visible from the river than we are today,” he said.
In June, the plans were presented to Lakeland’s Planning Commission with four variance requests, including one to build the home within about 14½ feet of the bluffline as opposed to the required 40-foot setback, and another to allow the height of the house to be 8 feet higher than the old one. The commission approved all the variances except for the excessive height. But the City Council ignored that recommendation and instead approved all the variances.
Then came the DNR’s threatened lawsuit, and the Planning Commission and City Council agreed to rehear the case after officials and the homeowners revisited the proposed house plans. Earlier this month, the Planning Commission was presented with five variance requests, but rejected two of them, said Ron Moorse, the city’s zoning consultant.
This time, the panel recommended rejecting both the excessive height variance and the bluffline setback. Again, the City Council ignored that recommendation and voted 3-1 to approve all of the variances. Council Member Asia Bednar cast the lone dissenting vote; Mayor Bob Livingston is on extended leave from duties because of illness.
“Variances are tough, and they’re really agonizing for all of us,” Molly Shodeen, area hydrologist with the DNR, told council members before the vote. But each variance from rules protecting the St. Croix weaken the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and could lead to its “death by a thousand cuts.”
“The goal is to protect the scenic quality of the river,” she said. “Increasing the existing roofline [of the Quinns’ home] is a detriment to the scenic quality of the river.”
Feelings among council members clearly were strong. “What’s the DNR trying to accomplish here?” asked Joe Paiement, Lakeland’s acting mayor.
City Council Member Amy Williams said the Quinns are trying to be sensitive to the aesthetics of the river. “I still feel strongly we made the right decision,” she said. The council carefully looked at balancing the interests of the Quinns with that of the community at large. In the end, she said, “we will have something that is better than what is there now.”
Shodeen said the DNR will review Lakeland’s decision, and the legal arguments supporting it, then decide on its response.
The actions in Lakeland, and whatever precedent is set in the DNR’s possible response in light of the Hubbard decision, are being closely watched by advocates for the river, said Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association.
They fear that a hodgepodge of local zoning ordinances, and an inclination of local governments to be protective of their own residents, could slowly erode the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. “As we pick away at it, what are we going to have left?” Ryun said.
Her group is not anti-development, she said, but advocates smart development that still values and protects the river for the pristine resource that it is.