Otter Tail County has more lakes than any other county in Minnesota — and possibly more than any other U.S. county — so when the county gets ready to rewrite its shoreland regulations, people pay attention.
Overall, the rewrite liberalizes land use policies along the lake, although it does tighten some things up. Land & Resource Management Director Chris LeClair said the rewrite began to make Otter Tail County's lakeshore policies easier to understand for the average home owner.
“One of the biggest comments I received from my three years here is the current shoreland ordinance is hard to read," LeClair said. "I agree. It’s a little clunky.”
He also said the rewrite would bring the county's regulations closer to the state's rules, which has in some cases more relaxed standards.
A proposed redraft of the ordinance is up for a public hearing on Monday, May 10, at 7 p.m. in the Bigwood Convention Center in Fergus Falls. To view the current ordinance or the proposed revision, visit ottertailcountymn.us/content-page/shoreland-management-ordinance. The Otter Tail County Commission would have to approve the changes.
Among those affected by this rewrite:
With the advent of websites that allow anybody to rent out a room or a house, or even a place to pitch a tent, many more people have been renting out their lakeshore homes through online websites. LeClair said they have identified about 300 such sites throughout the county.
While these places have to become licensed by the Otter Tail County Public Health department, this revised ordinance will require them to abide by certain capacity limits and sewer or septic standards. For instance, a septic system has to be large enough to accommodate the number of people that would rent a home, he said. If it's not, the property owners would either have to obtain a conditional use permit from the county or expand their septic system, which could be costly. It's possible that some smaller properties would not be able to expand their systems.
However, lakeshore is only supposed to be used for agricultural purposes or single-family residences, LeClair said.
All other uses, including resorts, have to get conditional use permits.
"This levels the playing field," he said. At a recent meeting, resort owners approved the changes, but he hasn't gotten feedback from VRBO properties, he said.
A VRBO — Vacation Rental By Owner — that meets the new requirements would not need to obtain special permits beyond that issued by the health department. Besides the septic system, the other proposed requirements would ban street parking and more than two dwellings on the lot.
Crave privacy on your lake place? This revision would allow property owners to put up a privacy fence on the property line, LeClair said.
Currently, fences over 6 feet high have to meet setbacks of 10 feet from the property line, which essential cedes 10 feet of your lot to your neighbor, he said.
“For me, that just seemed burdensome," he said. "So we took that out.”
Lakeshore owners still are not allowed to extend the fence past their homes toward the lake, so as not to block their neighbor's view of the lake. But it will allow the fence along the property line from the road right of way to the edge of the house closest the lake.
“That’s a big step for us, allowing people to put privacy fences up,” LeClair said.
People who get visitors
Another liberalization of the lakeshore regulations would allow property owners to build guest cottages of up to 700 square feet.
"We currently prohibit guest cottages and the state allows them," LeClair said. “It’s not a free for all. You have to have a relatively large lot to have a guest cottage.”
People who want to store paddles near the lake
The new ordinance would lift a prohibition on water-oriented accessory structures, like a little shed by the lake for fishing poles and paddles.
Currently, Otter Tail County requires those buildings to be 40, 65 or 90 feet from neighbor lot line, depending on the lake classification. That's much stricter than the state requirement of a 10-foot setback.
“This will allow people … to have one of those type of structures,” LeClair said. “I think a lot of people will be excited abut that.”
What lakeshore owners think
In 2019, the Otter Tail County Lakes Association sent out 15,000 postcards to lakeshore owners, asking their thoughts about the county's lakeshore ordinance, said the association's administrative assistant John Kruse. About 1,300 people responded. Last September, it tallied the results and posted them on lakeadmin.org.
“What was interesting was the comments that we got from these people,” Kruse said. “I thought it would be a couple sentences. It turned out to be a book.”
Of those who responded, 47.2% thought the county's ordinances were too restrictive, 44.2% thought that the county's ordinances were about right, and 8.6% thought they weren't strict enough.