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Planning Commission nixes lake setback rule

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Planning Commission nixes lake setback rule
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Tuesday night, the Becker County Planning and Zoning Commission voted to make it easier to build on postage stamp-sized lake lots.

The recommendation will go to the Becker County Board for a final decision on Tuesday.

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The planning commission took comments and discussed the matter for an hour and a half regarding changes to the zoning ordinance concerning shoreland setbacks.

Under the existing ordinance, when building new homes on lakes, property owners must take an average of the setback of the two neighboring homes and add 20 feet.

For instance, if the neighbor to the left has a setback of 50 feet, and the neighbor to the right has a setback of 40 feet, the homeowner building the house between them has to have an average of their setback (45 feet) plus 20 feet for a total setback of 65 feet.

The planning commission voted Tuesday to nix the added 20-foot setback and go with the average setback only.

Multiple people spoke for and against the ordinance change.

Coalition of Lake Associations representative John Postovit, who spoke against the change, said the proposed amendment was because too many other variances have been created.

“If it is the goal to reduce the number of variances, the place for ordinance amendment is the non-conforming structures expansion section instead of repealing the principle setback provision,” he said.

He said there are variances available for adding onto existing cabins, but new construction should be held to the larger setback.

Several lake association representatives also spoke against the amendment.

“Our No. 1 responsibility is to the lake,” said Don Davis, Cotton Lake Association.

He said that while the ordinance may inconvenience a few people, it’s about protecting the lake, not the people.

“We are the invasive species, but we need to be a benevolent invasive,” he said.

“This would be a huge step backward in protecting our lakes,” said Jennifer Thompson of Island Lake.

Steve Lindow, Bad Medicine Lake, asked the planning commission to keep the ordinance as is because he’s seen it work first-hand on Bad Medicine Lake.

One homeowner was forced to build back the extra 20 feet and now has a nice yard with trees between his house and the lake.

“We get a lot of compliments on our lake,” he said because boaters can see the trees and not the houses from the lake. “Keep the water clarity and the views,” he added.

Paul Lindquist, Bad Medicine Lake, said that not that many years ago, Bad Medicine Lake rose about 10 feet, “and swallowed up a lot of shoreline.” Many cabins are now way too close to the shoreline, he said, and the plus 20-foot setback should be kept in place.

“We need to have the setback plus 20 feet, otherwise we’re going backward,” he said.

Island Lake resident Terry Kalil said she feels like this is deja vu because it seems this ordinance was only passed a few days ago – it’s been seven years – and she was there arguing for it.

Willis Mattson, formerly with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said that while the county’s ordinances are “exemplary, they are still inadequate to protect the lakes.”

Anytime there is a change within the shoreland area, “it will change the vegetative cover and there’s potential damage (to the lake),” he said.

When asked what the setback should be, he said there is no black and white number, but as long as the area is disturbed, there is a chance for damaging a lake.

He added that zoning laws – at the higher up levels – were put into place for political reasons, not to protect the lakes.

“It is important we don’t reverse this,” Dick Hecock, Detroit Lake, said.

He added that it’s not just about the lake quality for the homeowners but also for the entire state and those who come to the area to use the lakes.

There were also some who spoke in favor of the change.

“I think it’s long overdue,” said Greg Anderson of Turtle Lake.

He added that with all the ordinances, builders would have to keep “inching back until we have unbuildable lots.”

Turtle Lake, he said, is the most populated lake in the area, by size, but it’s also one of the cleanest.

Pat Strum, Big Toad Lake, said that he and his wife own land on the lake and would like to build their retirement home there. He said he would be in favor of changing the ordinance to nix the extra 20-foot setback because, while it’s not a terrible hardship, it would complicate their building site.

Kevin Shipley said he supported the amendment because proper mitigation is the key to building on the lake, yet saving the lake.

Planning Commission Chair Jim Bruflodt said that he agreed that mitigation is very important and that he would like to see even stricter guidelines for mitigation requirements.

Mitigation requirements can include rain gardens and French drains, among other water treatment measures.

Planning and Zoning Administrator Patty Swenson said that this is being discussed because it has been brought up by enough people that it needed to be looked at. It was passed years ago with the understanding that it could be revisited in the future.

But what that magic setback number is, she said, is unknown.

“There is no black and white. That’s why we’re here tonight,” she said.

She said that she gets several requests that don’t conform to the ordinance and therefore homeowners have to go through the variance process, asking the county to make an exception for their building request. Each is looked at on a case-by-case basis.

Whether people agreed on the setback distance or not, many agreed that the majority of the lots are substandard and don’t fit the guidelines and therefore need variances.

Bruflodt said that he has no problem telling people that they have a bad lot and can’t build as they wanted to, but, he said, the state says the county can’t say that anymore. So mitigation, he said, is the way to go.

“Mitigation can at least supersede that 20 feet,” he said.

Impervious surface is a bigger concern than a setback, he said, adding that the planning commission is not trying to be a dictator. The extra 20-foot setback isn’t doing anything to protect the lake, he said, but more stanch mitigation with berms and trees would do more good.

“You need to go with us and see what we do,” he told audience members of the types of lots the planning commission deals with.

Planning Commission member Harry Johnston said that “it really impairs their vision of the lake,” to require a setback of 20 extra feet.

Planning Commission member John Lien said that he was never in favor of passing the plus-20 rule several years ago because it was “too clumsy.”

The setback distance, he said, “is only one issue of a more complex problem.”

Planning Commission member Jeff Moritz said he is “looking for finding of fact” and wants to know the reason for changing the ordinance. He said that, according to the numbers of homeowners that have had to deal with the setback variance at plus-20 feet, it didn’t seem to be that difficult.

Lien made a motion to remove the plus-20 feet of setback in the ordinance. It passed with Moritz and Mary Seaworth voting opposed. It will come before the County Board Tuesday.

Prior to the discussion on setbacks, the planning commission also made a few other changes to the ordinance.

The group voted to remove porous pavers as a mitigation option when it comes to impervious surface.

Residential homes are required to stay within 25 percent of their lot for impervious surface coverage, and porous pavers were used in the past to be counted as pervious surface. Commissioners said Tuesday that most porous pavers aren’t cleaned and kept up and soon become impervious surface.

“I think it’s time,” Bruflodt said of taking the porous pavers off the OK list because the county can’t run around to sites every few years and make sure homeowners are keeping them clean so water can run through the system.

“How many homeowners are actually going to do that,” he said, adding that it’s been done on the honor system in the past but no longer will be allowed to be counted as pervious.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.

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