County seeks to fine-tune shoreland development restrictions
The changes would permit construction to move forward on new shoreline boardwalks meeting certain criteria, intended to separate simpler, straightforward plans from elaborate walkway systems crisscrossing wetlands or encroaching on others’ property rights.
BRAINERD — Some boardwalk development along shorelines could be allowed again after the Crow Wing County Board considered revisions to a yearlong moratorium on the practice.
The changes would permit construction to move forward on new shoreline boardwalks meeting certain criteria, intended to separate simpler, straightforward plans from elaborate walkway systems crisscrossing wetlands or encroaching on others’ property rights. The board established the moratorium to give staff time to study the issue over the next year in pursuit of more robust and clearer regulations.
Environmental services supervisor Jake Frie asked commissioners during their Tuesday, July 12, meeting to review proposed changes to the ordinance before scheduling a public hearing on the matter.
“Since the passage of the interim ordinance in April 2022, Crow Wing County has seen proposals from developers and owners requesting to construct simple boardwalks that are minor in nature for access to shorelines,” Frie said. “The inability to place these boardwalks on the property are preventing use of the property in a reasonable manner not intended through the enactment of the ordinance in its current form.”
The boardwalk moratorium — coupled with a pause on shared access lots and an all-out ban on over-the-counter subdivisions within the shoreland district — was the board’s reaction to increasing residential development pressures on marginal lakeshore properties. These properties abut shallow, marshy areas, complicating residents’ ability to access navigable waters via traditional docking systems.
Lots like these represent some of the few opportunities left for new home construction on recreational lakes in the county. Until the board’s April vote, developers could purchase land on lakes and create housing subdivisions administratively without undergoing the more stringent and public platting process requiring direct County Board approval.
Specific developments on Big Trout and Pelican lakes — owned by the same developer — featured examples of proposed boardwalk systems under scrutiny. They also cast a spotlight on the administrative subdivision process, spurring neighbors along with leaders of three major lake associations to urge commissioners to make changes. The boardwalk proposal included with the Pelican Lake subdivision has since been withdrawn from consideration for permitting, but both subdivisions are already split and some lots sold.
The ban on administrative subdivisions in the shoreland district is also headed for some fine-tuning, with a proposed revision limiting it to the shore impact zone. Properties within the shoreland district aren’t necessarily lakeshore properties but rather are in proximity to water bodies.
“A number of applications and applicants have considered subdividing property that were larger (size) in nature and hundreds of feet away from the shore impact zone of public water bodies,” the request for board action stated. “The result of these applications resulted in the County Board considering additional revisions to the Ordinance.”
The board set July 26 public hearings on the changes to both the boardwalk moratorium and administrative subdivisions. Staff also proposed ordinances in general become effective immediately after board approval. The current 30-day window recently prompted the board to allow a number of pending applications for administrative subdivisions to move forward before the ban went into effect.
‘A boardwalk too far’
Frie presented seven characteristics further defining boardwalks the county would not approve during the moratorium. They include those permanently placed or constructed with pilings; those not elevated above a wetland at least 1 foot; those encroaching on 10-foot property line setbacks; those parallel to the shoreline or ordinary high water mark of riparian lots; those wider than 4 feet or longer than 200 feet; those proposed to be placed on any existing controlled or alternative access lots; and those not reviewed for environmental impacts.
In requesting commissioner feedback on the added language, Frie focused on the last characteristic. Such a requirement would launch another process by which an applicant must complete an environmental assessment worksheet, or EAW, the results of which would come before the board to further determine the need for an environmental impact statement, or EIS.
This requirement could be onerous for applicants, Frie said, by mandating $1,000 upfront earnest money to cover county costs and likely the need to hire an environmental consultant to assist with the 20 questions on the worksheet. Each completed worksheet would also mean a 30-day public comment period and a news release.
“I don’t want to get too much into the weeds, but essentially, if we were to mandate that an EAW would be required for a boardwalk, it would be likely more costly and time-consuming than most conditional use permits would be in front of the planning commission,” Frie said.
County Attorney Don Ryan, who assisted in crafting the ordinance, explained this characteristic was included in response to the environmental concerns at the heart of the initial board discussions.
“Whether it’s this mechanism — which is the most recognized mechanism to do — or something else, it seemed that the County Board wanted some kind of attention in those very sensitive areas before we start putting pilings and boardwalks and stuff through there,” Ryan said.
Commissioner Bill Brekken, who first brought the issue to the board , noted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources considers boardwalks the least impactful way to cross a sensitive wetland.
“I don’t think we want to make it over-cumbersome,” Brekken said. “ … I feel like this is almost overreach in a way, but I think by having no administrative subdivisions on the shore, that way we can catch those because when they come to the development meetings, we’re going to have to have a discussion.”
Land Services Director Gary Griffin said the environmental concerns are valid, but the “monster docks” proposed in the two projects prompting the moratorium stand in stark contrast to the average request.
“The two that have triggered this moratorium have basically rendered anybody that has cattails between them and the lake not riparian property anymore, because they can’t use it,” Griffin said. “ … Currently, we’ve heard from, I want to say, at least three people that have purchased or want to purchase property and they can’t access the water because of this restriction.”
Griffin noted if the board opted not to include this requirement now, it could be added later into the final product of the issue study.
Commissioner Paul Koering said he thinks the pendulum would swing too far with the environmental assessment worksheet requirement.
“I don’t know. This might be a little — a bridge too far, a boardwalk too far for me,” Koering said.
All the commissioners agreed to drop that provision and further discussion directed land services to drop the size dimensions requirement as well.