Commissioners reject recommendation
After testimony for and against, the Becker County Board of Commissioners decided against planning committee recommendations and voted to keep the plus 20-foot setback ordinance on lakeshore building projects.
Last Tuesday, the county planning commission met and discussed the matter, taking lots of comments from the public, voting to recommend the county drop the plus-20-foot setback and going back to averaging the setback of neighbors on both sides of the property.
This Tuesday morning, the commissioners voted 3-2 to keep the ordinance as is. Many agreed that something needs to be done with the ordinance, but getting rid of the 20-foot part wasn’t necessarily the portion of the ordinance that needed to be changed.
John Postovit, who was against the repeal, said the reason the amendment came to light was “based solely on the statement that there’s too many variances.”
Planning Admin-istrator Patty Swenson said that’s not true though.
Commissioner Barry Nelson asked Swenson what variances were being granted, and she said they were ones due to the 20-foot setback ordinance.
She said over the last two years, there have been 23 applications for variances due to the 20-foot setback and 18 of those were granted.
“I don’t think the public knew this was in place,” she said of the extra setback, not because the county has too many ordinances.
Commissioner Don Skarie questioned if this issue would be before the commission in another couple years to go back to adding more of a setback. He said he felt the issue needed to go back to the planning commission and “go through the whole big picture” before any changes should be made now.
“I can’t support just going back to the old (string line averaging way),” Nelson said. “Regardless of what happens, it’s going to be a lot for your office,” he added, addressing Swenson.
Commissioner Ben Grimsley said he saw the merit in trying to keep the new construction of structures back from the lake.
Detroit Lake resident Kevin Shipley, who said he lives on a non-conforming lot on Paradise Point, spoke in favor of the amendment to drop the extra 20-foot setback.
“I’d like to offer a compromise, and address water runoff that requires mitigation,” he said.
He added that anytime construction is done on a house, the county should require run-off mitigation. He said he knew of a homeowner who built a second story on their cottage but had no gutters and no downspouts. He said about having some mitigation requirements: “At least it would have been a first step” to helping the problem.
Swenson said there are “absolutely” guidelines in place for mitigation processes, which include site visits, follow-up and getting permits.
Nelson said he’s concerned that mitigation measures are hard to enforce because the county can’t visit every piece of property with mitigation requirements on a regular basis to ensure they are being properly cared for.
For instance, the county board took the planning commission’s recommendation Tuesday that would take out the usage of pervious pavers as a mitigation tool in the ordinance. Not enough people maintain and clean the pavers and they eventually got clogged and become impervious surface.
Mitigation isn’t the answer either, some audience members said.
“Mitigation is helpful, but it’s not there to replace the 20-foot (setback),” Bad Medicine Lake resident Steve Lindow said.
Pelican River Watershed District Assistant Administrator Jon Staldine said that mitigation isn’t a replacement for setback and the best practice is to simply build the structure back from the shoreline.
Some supporters of the amendment said that by keeping the plus 20-foot setback ordinance, eventually no one will be able to build on a site because they will be pushed back so far.
Lindow, however, said that’s not true because of other ordinances in place.
“The 20-foot setback would never stop anyone from building,” he said.
He said that he would like to hear a new plan to help protect the lake. He suggested redoing the language that’s forcing all the variances, not taking away the plus 20-foot setback.
“That’s where you get the reduction in variances,” he said.
Detroit Lake resident Barb Halbakken Fischburg asked the commissioners to take a closer look at the repeal because she didn’t think enough substantial information has been given to decide the plus-20 ordinance needed to be changed back to averaging only. “Whatever you do today is protection for the future,” she said.
County Surveyor Roy Smith said that the variance itself is just the “tip of the iceberg” because there are so many substandard lots in the county. He said the commissioners need to be more aware of the big picture and then make a decision.
“Look at the overall process and make a decision once and for all” because flopping back and forth on the amendment looks bad for the county,” he said.
Denise Oakes, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said that Minnesotans voiced their opinions several years ago with the passage of the Clean Water Legacy Amendment, and the state is spending a lot of money to study the states of its waters.
“The MPCA believes that setbacks are protective of water quality, and the greater the setback, the more protective it is, as evidenced in a 2006 study of Beauty Lake in Hubbard County,” she said.
She said the county needs to look at the big picture as to what a change in setbacks would do to the health of lakes and rivers before making a change that would bring structures closer to the lakeshore. She added that the economy will suffer if the lakes suffer.
Turtle Lake resident Greg Anderson, who actually lives in Clay County, said he has many years of experience in serving on planning boards and understands the process. He said that when the county enforced the averaging for setback, it was a great idea. When they added the 20 feet though, it “wasn’t appropriate.”
He said the added setback will eventually push people off their land. Instead, he said, the county needs to readjust its ordinances.
“The goal is to protect the lake and the question is how do we do that,” he said.
Ginny Imholte, Detroit Lake resident, said she just returned from a watershed conference that stressed how “setback is very, very important.”
She said she supports the plus-20 ordinance and she tried to get the city to approve a similar ordinance while she served on the planning commission but it never passed.
She asked the commission to keep the ordinance in place because of the precedence it can set for the whole state.
“Becker County has a good history of starting up good concepts for the lakes that are taken statewide,” she said.
Respect of committees
Besides the setback issue on the lake, another point brought up was the point of having committees and listening to their recommendations.
Shipley said that committees are established for a reason and most “do the heavy lifting” by listening to the public, for better or worse. He encouraged the county commission to “respect the committees and the work they do” by going along with the planning commission’s recommendation.
Commissioner Larry Knutson, who also sits on the planning commission as a representative of the county board, said he’s sat through many meetings and testimony on the issue and he understands why his fellow commissioners may not know all the details of how the ordinance affects people, but that’s the point of having committees and trusting their recommendations.
He called it an “insult” that commissioners didn’t support the committee’s recommendation.
Knutson made a motion to amend the ordinance to nix the plus 20-foot setback, with John Okeson seconding it. Nelson, Grimsley and Skarie voted in favor of keeping the plus 20-foot setback.
Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.