The alternative standards are aimed at protecting the small, shallow Minnesota lakes and environmentally sensitive areas of large lakes that are still mostly undeveloped.
New developments would need to reduce the amount of impermeable surface and have holding areas to keep rainwater runoff from flowing directly into the lake. Septic systems would have to be set back farther from the lake to prevent phosphorus plumes from reaching the water and natural vegetation buffers would be required along the shoreline. Minnesota lakeshore standards were last updated in 1989.
DNR Lake Development Supervisor Russ Schultz directed the current shoreland standards update process. He chaired a committee of developers, business owners, environmentalists and lake property owners who spent nearly a year debating new rules to protect Minnesota lakes and rivers.
Schultz says the focus of the alternative standards is protecting a class of lakes called natural environment lakes which make up 70% of Minnesota lakes.
"That's your smaller water bodies and shallower ones. And that's where a lot of our development pressure is going to," says Schultz. "There's a lot more fragile resources around these smaller water bodies, so there needs to be some special considerations if you're going to develop that type of water body."
Most of the proposed changes affect new developments, not existing lake homes, according to Schultz. He says lake home owners are encouraged to follow the new standards for things like shoreline buffers and stormwater runoff, but they're not required to.
The new standards also encourage something called conservation subdivisions. The concept uses the natural features around a lake to guide design of housing developments. Brainerd area developer Jim Raboin helped draft the new alternative standards and he says a conservation subdivision would have fewer homes, smaller lots, and more green space with trails, parks or other amenities.
"For the developer, what than means is he's going to have less lots to sell, so he has to figure out how to make more money from the diminishing lots he has to get income from," says Raboin.
The result will be less profit for developers, according to Raboin, but he says it's a tradeoff he's willing to make to protect the natural resources that attract people to central Minnesota. Raboin says it's clear the traditional style of intensive lakeshore development will eventually destroy the natural resources of the region.
The new lakeshore standards can provide a good balance between environmental protection and development, according to Phil Hunsicker, Regional Program Director for the group 1000 Friends of Minnesota, which promotes sustainable development.
Hunsicker says if implemented, the alternative standards will preserve water quality without economic damage to the tourism economy. There are special standards for resort expansion or improvements that are less restrictive. A key concern of the lakeshore standards working group was keeping resorts viable to provide public access to those who can't afford to own lakeshore property.
Hunsicker says the working group was split over whether to impose the new standards statewide, or make them optional for local governments. The DNR chose to make adopting the new standards voluntary. "They didn't want to be the big brother pushing these rules on local units of government. They're hoping they could go through a process where they do educate folks and do some outreach and let them make the decision that these rules make sense and we should adopt them. But there are some folks that would like to see these become statewide," says Hunsicker.
DNR Lake Management Supervisor Russ Schultz says there is no plan to impose the new standards statewide. Schultz says Minnesotans are regulation weary, and he thinks education will be more effective than simply imposing new rules.
Schultz says local governments across the state are very interested in the alternative standards but concerned about the cost of enforcing more complex regulations, while at the same time dealing with budget cuts.
"I've heard that concern from many counties and cities. 'These alternative standards, aren't they going to cause us more work with less people?' In some cases yes. I don't have a solution for that. That's more of a political or money solution," says Schultz.
The new lakeshore standards are strictly optional. It will be up to counties to decide whether the tougher standards are worth the cost.
Five north central Minnesota counties, Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard and Itasca are participating in the shoreland standards pilot project.