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County proposes larger lot sizes for sensitive lakes

Becker County is taking a hard look at requiring much larger lot sizes for some "recreational development" lakes -- like Little Cormorant -- and most "natural environment" lakes, like Cottage, Big Basswood and Little Bass.

And for the first time, the county would lay down extra protection for developments around open wetlands.

The new policy would only apply to new developments, and would have little impact on general development lakes like Melissa and Sallie, which would mostly have existing lot sizes grandfathered-in.

The county has long struggled with the zoning inadequacies of one-size-fits-all lot sizes around lakes, according to a report from a committee set up to review county zoning policy.

"The current system of general development, recreational development and natural environment lakes and the associated 100-foot, 150-foot and 200-foot minimum lot sizes was originally developed based on lake size, existing development, depth and other natural characteristics," the report states. "As development has intensified, it has become apparent that many lakes are not being adequately protected with this system."

With the best lakes already full, more marginal lakes are being developed, including open wetlands that currently have "virtually no protection with regard to residential development."

In other words, you can't drain wetlands, but you can basically build wall-to-wall houses around them, according to County Zoning Administrator Patricia Johnson.

"Everyone knows you can't drain a wetland, but you can build right up to it," she said.

The problem with standard lot sizes is that they are designed to best protect large, round lakes, and not all lakes are large or round. Smaller lakes and lakes with irregular shoreline -- long, skinny lakes, for example -- are more apt to suffer from over-development with standard lot sizes.

So the committee has adopted a formula that "combines the basic sensitivity class (general development, recreational development or natural environment) with a calculation that accounts for both size and shape," according to the report.

Under the formula, most general development lakes in Becker County would retain 100-foot lots. Some of the recreational development lakes retain 150-foot lots, "while a good share increase lot sizes somewhat, and some of the smaller or irregular lakes increase lot size significantly," according to the report.

As for natural environment lakes, "most of the northeast lakes have increased lot sizes, some quite dramatically," the report says. "At first glance, some of the very large lot sizes required on small NE lakes seem unusually restrictive. However, given the nature of these lakes, they can accommodate only a few lots before the entire character of the lake is destroyed."

While minimum lot sizes on most northeast lakes would be 5 acres or less, quite a few would fall into the 6-10-acre range, and a few would require larger lot sizes still.

Ruggs Lake in Two Inlets Township, for example, would have a minimum lot size of just over 17 acres. Sand Lake in Erie Township would require lots just over 13 acres. Sucker Lake in Round Lake Township would require 11-acre lots and Twin Lake in Two Inlets Township would require 12-acre lots.

Under the proposed formula, the lot width on Little Toad Lake would not change, the lot width on Eagle Lake would increase somewhat, from 150 feet to 190 feet, and the lot width on Little Cormorant would double, from 150 feet to 310 feet, according to the report.

"The lot size modifications reflect the size, shape, character and potential development impacts to these lakes," the report adds.

The committee also proposes to designate all type 3, 4 and 5 wetlands greater than 10 acres -- those with standing water -- as natural environment lakes to protect them from over-development.

"Wetlands and shallow lakes are valuable and sensitive water basins where only minor alterations can have dramatic effects that compromise their ecological integrity," the reports says. "As less and less standard lakeshore property is available for development, these wetlands and shallow lakes are coming under greater and greater development pressure and have very little protection under current regulations."

Natural environment lakes and swamps have now become prime development land.

"Five years ago, who'd have thought it?" Johnson said. "But that's what we're seeing. And the first thing people do when they buy a lot on a natural environment lake is strip the vegetation -- on shore and off. You'd think people would know better than to do that, but they don't."

At a public informational meeting held at the courthouse Tuesday evening, several people said the proposal didn't go far enough to protect lakes.

Ray Vlasak of Bad Medicine Lake, for example, would prefer to see "lake modeling" used, where lot sizes are determined after studying the condition of each individual lake. And he opposes the current plan to "grandfather in" existing lots. They should become nonconforming lots, he said.

A few others blasted the proposal as going too far.

Loren Jetvig, for example, said the plan is a "crazy" one that is unfair to landowners, will discourage development, and will ultimately hurt the county's tax base.

Still others liked the idea. Ginny Imholte, who sits on the Pelican River Watershed District Board, applauded the committee's work.

"In years to come, the most precious resource in Becker County will be water," she said.

Jim Renslow, who represents the Little Cormorant Lake Association, also applauded the plan.

Some called for the county to regulate sensitive lakeshore on a case-by-case basis, as developers submit plans.

But effective land use control requires the county to plan ahead and have an ordinance in place, said committee member Jerry Flottemesch of Callaway.

"It's very difficult to have it stand up in court when you make a decision based on each individual lot," he said.

The idea is to preserve the quality of the county's lakes, Johnson said.

"We want to sustain that water quality , that value, that we do have in Becker County. Research shows that there is an impact to water quality, wildlife and plant life based on development."

The committee plans to hold several more public informational meetings around the county before forwarding its recommendations to the county planning commission.

The county board will have the final say on whether to adopt the recommendations.