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Score one for Becker County

More and more often, people are tearing down cabins and cottages and building big houses and garages on small lake lots.

In the not-so-recent past, the result was often runoff that flooded neighboring property or drained directly into lakes, lowering water quality.

Becker County's solution -- adopted last fall -- is to require property owners to take steps to contain runoff, but to let the developer decide what mitigation efforts best fit the property.

The county's unique approach to redevelopment of substandard lakeshore lots has won the respect of the state Department of Natural Resources -- so much so that the DNR is recommending the idea statewide as part of its new "alternative shoreland management standards."

The beauty of the county's approach is that it avoids the trap of granting everlasting variances while protecting lakeshore. It allows developers to pick and choose mitigation options to fit their needs, according to John Postovit, the member of the county's Zoning and Subdivision Ordinance Advisory Committee who pioneered the idea.

In an interview, Postovit used his own nonconforming lot on Floyd Lake as an example.

"We have created a system in Becker County that allows the zoning office and administrator to give permission to redevelop even though all the zoning standards are not met," Postovit said. "It's a trade off ... We are trying to avoid variances, which actually change the law in regard to that piece of land forever."

Postovit has a variance on his Floyd Lake property allowing the owner to build 42 feet back from the lake. "We actually built 60 feet back, that was about 10 years ago, but someday that (house) will be a tear-down, and that variance, which lasts forever, will allow the owner to build 42 feet back from the lake."

Theoretically, he added, every piece of nonconforming property could have a variance on it, and "there wouldn't be any standards whatsoever ... We wanted a process that allows you to build at 42 feet if it's right for your site, or 60 feet if that's right for your parcel."

Philosophically, there's a big difference between a flexible mitigation strategy and rigid variances.

"I think Becker County took the right path," he said.

The state's alternative shoreland management standards list the mitigation tool as an option counties can employ along with variances.

Becker County will undoubtedly still be asked to grant the occasional variance, Postovit said, but it might be reasonable to ask if they should be granted: If the mitigation plan can't be made to work, the development is probably just too big for the site, he said.

Variances have other problems as well, he said: The application process comes with a fee attached, and their general acceptance or denial can change with the political winds as county boards and planning panels change members.

"Our system makes it a scientific thing. It's an objective and consistent way of doing it from site to site to site."

The new rules have been in force since November and the county now has a half dozen redevelopment requests before it, with county officials "working with people on their projects," Postovit said.

Here's how the system works:

The new requirements apply only to those who build on nonconforming lake lots -- which are lots of record that don't meet the minimum lot size adopted by the county in 1971.

There are a lot of such lots, up to 60 percent of all lake lots in the county, according to a rough estimate by County Surveyor Roy Smith, Postovit said.

For example, lots on Floyd Lake were first platted in 1906, and most of the general development lakes like Detroit, Melissa, Sallie and Cormorant were largely platted prior to 1971.

The new system allows people to rebuild on those nonconforming lots, but it requires mitigations like restoring shoreline vegetative buffers, reestablishing shoreline berms, disposing of roof drainage on site, using a porous paver system instead of an asphalt or gravel driveway, and removing impervious surface in the shore impact zone.

"The objective is to lessen the impact that redevelopment has on the lake," Postovit said.

There are four key provisions:

n The minimum setback standard for buildings remains at 75 feet for a general development lake, 100 feet for a recreational development lake and 150 feet for a natural environment lake -- and new buildings can still be placed in line with existing adjacent buildings. But if that "in-line" distance is less than the minimum setback, the owner must plant a vegetative shoreline buffer.

n The maximum impervious surface coverage limit remains at 25 percent, but mitigation is required when site coverage exceeds 15 percent.

The owner can choose from a menu of mitigation options -- a shoreline berm, a porous paver system , or a system that captures runoff onsite.

"The amount of proposed impervious surface will direct the owners choices," Postovit said. "It may take several or a combination of mitigation options to fully offset the amount of impervious surface coverage over 15 percent."

n The shore impact zone must be cleared of major impervious surface areas, with a small amount of coverage allowed for landings, stairs, and pump stations. Mitigation credit is given for the removal of buildings and impervious surface in the shore impact zone.

n The mitigation chosen by the owner must be guaranteed in writing for enforcement purposes, and will remain as a requirement of that property through successive owners.

To help new property owners through the process, the ordinance review committee has developed a worksheet that allows the owner to add up the mitigation units required, and determine what measures must be taken to pay them off.

"The beauty of it is that it doesn't change existing rules on setback, impervious surfaces and so on," Postovit said, but it protects the lakes while allowing landowners to decide what mitigation plan works best for them.