The owners of a home on Lake Minnetonka have filed a lawsuit over the shape of a dock owned by the city of Minnetonka Beach that extends into the lake in front of their property.
Steven Schussler, who created the Rainforest Cafe chain and other theme restaurants, and his wife, Sunhi Ryan-Schussler, are suing the city as well as the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District (LMCD), saying the dock, which extends at about a 45-degree angle from the shoreline, obstructs their use of the lake. The city rents out four boat slips at the end of the dock; the Schusslers say boats moving in and out present a safety hazard for swimmers off the Schusslers’ 110 feet of shoreline.
“God forbid a child or nieces and nephews or their children should ever come over and visit us and get hurt in the water,” Steve Schussler said. Also, the Schusslers aren’t able to build a dock to house their own three boats.
The dock extends from a 40-foot public easement on the Schusslers’ property platted in the late 19th century as a “fire lane,” allowing fire trucks access to lake water for fighting blazes. Fire lanes and other public easements surround the 14,500-acre lake. Because the easements include property extending beyond the shoreline into the water, many cities have built municipal docks on them.
Property owners around the lake are worried that the LMCD will respond to the suit by expanding cities’ rights to use those easements without the owners’ consent. LMCD officials have considered rewording its ordinance concerning easement rights.
“Because of one property owner on one fire lane, [the LMCD is] amending their ordinance in a way that involves hundreds of properties,” said Peter Johnson, a lawyer representing Gabriel Jabbour, who owns marinas and other property on the lake.
The dock at the Schusslers’ home, known as Dock #10, is about 160 feet long and includes four boat slips, which the city rents to Minnetonka Beach residents who don’t own lakeshore property. Dozens of similar municipal docks ring Lake Minnetonka, but most extend at a perpendicular line from the shore and neighbors typically don’t object.
Lawyers for the city and the LMCD say the dock angles the way it does because it follows the edge of the Schusslers’ property, which is angled — narrower at the shore than it is on the street side.
“The Schusslers own a pie-shaped lot,” said Paul Reuvers, a lawyer representing Minnetonka Beach. “That truly is the problem there, and they bought it knowing that.”
Steve Schussler agreed that he was familiar with the dock placement when he bought the property but thought he could work with the city and neighbors to change it. The couple have lived in the home for two and a half years, he said, and filed suit only after they were unable to negotiate with the city and neighbors to shift the dock’s position.
Some years ago, the dock was perpendicular to the shoreline, skewing at an angle away from the fire lane and extending into the neighboring lake property with the owners’ consent. But when new owners bought the property, they asked that the dock be removed.
“I was buying a problem I thought I could fix,” Schussler said. “What we’ve learned since moving in here is that it’s a very unfair situation for the homeowner.”
As an alternative, the city could place docks in different locations within its jurisdiction that aren’t being used, said James Gilbert, a lawyer representing the Schusslers. “Minnetonka Beach has at least six of their unused watercraft areas available.”
Meanwhile, other owners of Minnetonka lakeshore property are worried that the dispute will prompt the LMCD to expand lakeside cities’ permitted use of easement locations. The agenda of a March 11 meeting of the LMCD’s board of directors included an item suggesting changes to the existing law’s wording.
The suggested rewording said, in part, “The language requiring owner consent on an application was not intended to limit the ability of municipalities to continue to have and maintain docks on their lands abutting the Lake, including on fire lanes that have been used for that purpose for many decades. ... [T]he LMCD has always treated municipalities as the owner of public lands under their jurisdiction, including rights of way dedicated to the public by plat.”
LMCD officials say the rewording is intended merely to clarify the current ordinance; opponents say it would change it.
The board voted to table discussion of the ordinance. The item was not included in the next agenda and has not been rescheduled, said Gregg Thomas, the board’s chairman.
“I thought the board needed more time to understand the issues,” Thomas said. He declined to comment on how the proposed wording compares with the ordinance’s existing language except to say “there’s nothing in there to modify what currently exists.”
But opponents say the rewording would change the nature of the ordinance, expanding municipalities’ control over easements, essentially giving cities ownership of that land.
“Their current ordinance is not vague,” Johnson said. “Their current ordinance says that if the applicant is not the owner, they must have the owner’s consent. ... The city, under this ordinance change, is being declared the owner, or considered the owner.”
State law already favors municipalities in their disputes with property owners, according to Justin Templin, a lawyer representing the LMCD. “Minnesota case law says that the city’s rights, the public entity’s rights, are primary in these cases where the two rights conflict.”