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Guest Editorial: Cabin owners squeezed by costs; lakes at risk

New information about those who own lake homes should set off some alarm bells.

They're getting older. They don't have as much money as they once did. And pressed with mounting medical bills, rising health insurance costs and other expenses, their ability to maintain their lake properties is in peril. As a result, water quality is at risk.

The information was detailed in a new statewide survey conducted late last year by the nonprofit environmental group, Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates. It found what it described as a "disturbing trend" among the more than 300 lakeshore seasonal property owners and lakeshore homestead property owners who were surveyed: More and more aging owners are faced with rising costs in living expenses while also trying to maintain and protect lakes, lakeshore and water quality.

The 2016 study updated previous studies done in 2005 and 1999, which found that most lakeshore and cabin homes are family-based and were either purchased for recreational and retirement use — or the property was inherited — versus property that was purchased solely for investment.

The survey's most telling finding reflected age of owners, average annual income and net worth. Today, the average household income of a seasonal property owner in Minnesota is $58,000 annually and the average age of lake home and cabin property owners is 68 years old.

In 1999, the average Minnesota property owner age was 58. In 2005, the average age was 62 years. The average household income has not changed appreciatively during that time.

"Lake shore or cabin ownership of 34 years on average is one of the highest in the Midwest. These places are viewed as heirlooms, not assets," noted Jeff Forester, director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates. "By and large, lake home and cabin owners in Minnesota have average-to-low cash reserves but probably higher than average net worth due to property they own. However, they are of an advanced age and are about to face the highest health care costs of their lives."

This information comes at a time when the state is struggling to protect healthy lakes in Minnesota while restoring the estimated 40 percent that are degraded.

"Very hard decisions are coming in the short term," Forester said. "Minnesota is about to experience the largest intergenerational transfer of shoreline property in our history. Yet, the next generation will no doubt be stressed to pay for the medical bills and maintain the properties that will come into their ownership in the next decade."

Simply put, Forester said that the children of lake shore and cabin owners are going to face a "Sophie's choice" — use dwindling cash reserves to pay for the medical care of their elderly parents or try to preserve their family's parcel of lake property. "That land — if subdivided and redeveloped — will produce significant revenue but cause major community, familial and heritage disruptions," Forester said.

The results of the study puts added pressure on state and local governments to maintain the quality of our lakes and waterways. They have to look into the future and prepare now for the transitionary period ahead. That means working closely with this new generation of cabin owners to protect the lakes, enacting and enforcing strict lakeshore zoning ordinances to prevent overdevelopment, and partnering with lake associations to develop innovative ideas for preserving our lakes while they are still worth protecting.

-- Alexandria Echo Press