In an epic four-year legal battle over development along one of the region's most scenic and popular waterways, broadcast magnate Rob Hubbard took the fight to the big guys and won.

Hubbard, who wanted an exception to the rules when he built an 8,000-square-foot house on the St. Croix River, said he was tired of heavy-handed influence from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in local decision-making.

On Thursday, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with him and may have severely limited the state's ability to regulate building along the river.

The court ruled that the state agency had no authority to deny Lakeland's approval of a "setback variance" governing how Hubbard would build his house.

"We've pushed this because we've seen so many people bullied up and down the river by the DNR," Hubbard said. "Most people can't afford to fight them."

But Hubbard can, and he did, through four years of hearings and court actions to make his point. In the end, he won only a few more feet of space for his house but declared a larger victory in defeating a regulatory agency he sees as his nemesis.

"Did they target me as an individual or because of my name? I don't know," Hubbard said Thursday.

The drama on the St. Croix played on a stage much larger than the modest Washington County city of Lakeland, where Hubbard owns a 3.8-acre property among 1,800 residents, many of whom also live near the water. The Hubbard family is storied and influential in the area, however, and from the beginning, environmentalists assailed the Hubbard house as private wealth infringing on public resources.

The Sierra Club said Thursday that adequate protection of the St. Croix remains if local leaders enforce regulations already in place. "We continue to urge local leaders on both sides of the river to be diligent in enforcing those regulations so the great recreational and scenic benefits we enjoy today can continue to be enjoyed by all and not exploited for the benefit of a few," the club said.

For its part, the DNR wasn't taking sides Thursday. "This is a very important decision that helps clarify the DNR's role regarding local river variance decisions," Commissioner Mark Holsten said. "The Supreme Court has provided us with answers to questions that have been a matter of controversy for years."

The DNR doesn't expect the ruling to reach very far beyond the St. Croix, said spokesman Scott Pengelly, but some environmentalists think it could lead to challenges on other water bodies and even in other situations.

"It won't take long before other attorneys start questioning oversight by other agencies," said Jim Rickard of the Sierra Club's St. Croix Valley Interstate Group.

Hubbard, president of broadcasting and television at Hubbard Broadcasting, said the dispute commenced over rules that didn't make sense. The DNR's opposition to his variance request, he said, was "totally unnecessary and totally harmful."

Before he built his house behind a small 1930s-era cabin, he requested a setback variance from the city of Lakeland in 2006 to also build on the cabin site. Now that the court has ruled, he plans to demolish the cabin and extend his house.

Even then, he said, his house won't reach as far toward the river's edge as where the cabin now stands. He also said he has improved the property by reducing stormwater runoff and improving soil stability.

Hubbard, whose family has a long history along the river, has said he has a been a good environmental steward.

"A lot of people talk about how we're going to build closer to this bluff and that's not the case," he said.

The Supreme Court's ruling means cities and townships will carry the burden for interpreting and enforcing the web of ordinances and laws that govern the St. Croix, although it doesn't exclude the DNR from offering advice and expertise.

Hubbard said he doesn't intend to ruin the river, Rickard said he's confident local governments will protect it, and Holsten said, "The wild and scenic river's foundation is still strong."

But the Supreme Court ruling, in removing the DNR's power to veto changes of rules regarding where houses can be built along the St. Croix, included suggestions of struggles to come:

"Without such power, the [DNR] Commissioner asserts that local governments granting unjustified variances with no oversight could in essence undo the guidelines and standards that the DNR sets for river protection, which are supposed to apply uniformly and on a statewide basis."

Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432