Fees to clear lakefront vegetation could triple

Many aquatic plant control permits are issued to allow homeowners to keep an area near their dock free of vegetation. A rule change this year limits most permits to no more than half of their shoreline.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Thousands of Minnesotans get permits every year to clear aquatic vegetation from their beach front property, but next year, the cost of those permits could triple.

The DNR says it has no choice but to raise the fees, but some lake property owners say the change will encourage more people to ignore state law.

Most Minnesotans prefer a smooth sandy beach in front of their lake home, and a clean swimming area with no plants. You can clear a small area without a permit, but thousands of people pay the $35 fee for a permit to clear larger areas. In most cases, that's limited to no more than half of their shoreline.

Last year, about 4,400 permits were issues on 925 lakes.

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Regional Aquatic Plant Management Specialist Leslie George recently stopped to inspect a permit on Wall Lake near Fergus Falls.

The permit is for a weed roller, a mechanical device that automatically clears vegetation from the lake bottom. Along with herbicide, it's one of the most common ways to clear aquatic plants.

Weed control
Mechanical devices like this one, that keep vegetation from growing on the lake bottom, are the most common permit the DNR writes for aquatic vegetation control, followed by herbicides.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

George peered off the end of the dock, trying to see through the wind blown water where the plants have been removed. The cleared area appeared to be slightly larger than permitted.

"But this is nothing we would worry too much about," George said. "If they're pretty dang close and look like they've shown every effort to stay within the permitted area, we'll give them the thumbs up and call it compliant."

The permit to use this weed roller is $35; next year it could cost $90.

That's because the state legislature ordered the DNR Aquatic Plant Management Program to raise enough in fees to pay for its operation. Permits currently pay only about 30 percent of the cost.

The exact fee increase hasn't been set yet, but Leslie George worries about the impact of a large fee increase.

Checking on permit
DNR aquatic plant specialist Leslie George checks to see if anyone is home before inspecting an aquatic plant control permit. She says most permit holders follow the rules, but last year she was able to inspect about 25 percent of the permits in her area of west central Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"We've been told this program has to pay for itself through this fee increase," George said. "But how high is too high before permit noncompliance skyrockets? We have to try to find that middle point.

"Do we have flat permit fees? Caps? No caps? How do we get at the target number without having our permit application fees so high as to discourage participation?"

That's exactly what the president of the Minnesota Lakeshore Association predicts will happen. Paul Isensee said many lake property owners already dislike DNR regulations, and a big fee will cause people to remove vegetation illegally.

"People are just going to say, the heck with it, I can buy this chemical over the internet. I know what they're putting on it now, I don't need someone to put it on for me, I'll just do it myself," Isensee said. "And let's face it. There are not enough DNR people on the planet to be able to police all of this."

Lake associations will also be hit hard by the proposed fee increase, according to Isensee. Under current rules, a single permit can cover dozens of homes and the cost is capped at $750. On some lakes, individuals pay as little as $7.50 for their permit.

The state collects the permit fee, but Isensee said the cost of controlling invasive plants is left up to property owners. On his lake, homeowners donate money to pay for spraying herbicide on invasive curly leaf pondweed. If fees increase he believes people will be less willing to donate money to control the plants.

"Shifting the burden of the administrative costs of this program onto the people who are already donating their time and money I think is barking up the wrong tree," Isensee said.

Taxpayers should subsidize the cost of keeping lakes, which are public waters, healthy and accessible, according to Isensee.

DNR Aquatic Plant Management Program Coordinator Steve Enger encourages public input on the proposed new fees. Enger understands many lake property owners won't be happy paying higher fees.

"I think the permit fees have probably been too low for a long time," Enger said. "So some increase is necessary. This might be too large an increase in a short period of time, but at the same time, we have this direction from the legislature so our hands are sort of tied in that regard."

The DNR is proposing some minor rule changes will also be adopted when the fees are increased.

Some of the key areas being considered include adding definitions to clarify terms used in the proposed rules, clarify when site inspections are required before a permit is issued, clarify when a permit is valid for more than one year and setting rules to allow aquatic vegetation control after September 1.

The DNR is taking public comment on the changes until August 14, and the fee increase will likely take effect next summer unless the legislature has a change of heart.