DNR sues small township, homeowner, over lakeshore variance

Lake shore
Richard Hanson's original cabin was built in the 1960s. It's only 14 feet from the lakeshore, down a steep bank. Current zoning rules require a 100 foot setback and Hanson's granted variance for a construction project has been challenged by the DNR.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is taking a township board and property owner to court over a zoning permit for a lake home.

The lawsuit filed in Becker County is an unusual legal challenge to local zoning authority.

About 50 years ago, Richard Hanson's father built a small, seasonal cabin on Lake Ida, a relatively small, shallow lake in Becker county. In April, Hanson applied for a permit to expand the cabin into a four-season home.

But there was a problem: The original cabin was built only 14 feet from the lakeshore. Zoning regulations require a 100 foot setback and state law said you can't add on to a building that doesn't conform with current zoning regulations.

Hanson applied to the Cormorant Township board for a zoning variance, something the three-person board usually approves.

"I'd say we probably approve from 70 percent to 80 percent of the variances," said Steve Sorenson, supervisor of Cormorant Township.

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Sorenson said in this particular case, the Becker County zoning office recommended the variance be denied, but the township board unanimously approved the variance. But Sorenson said the board did its homework.

"It wasn't just a real quick decision," he said. "We tried to figure out what would be best for him, for the environment, for the lake and everything else."

Sorenson said removing the original cabin would have caused erosion problems, and he said building the new structure behind the 100 foot setback would be difficult because of the lot size.

AN UNUSUAL MOVE FOR DNR

The DNR calls the decision to grant the variance unreasonable. Court documents allege the township failed to follow the law in granting the variance.

A variance can be granted to ease undue hardship on a property owner. In this case, the state argues following the zoning regulations would not have caused undue hardship.

Cormorant Community Center
Cormorant Township officials face a legal challenge from the DNR over a zoning variance for a home renovation project on Lake Ida. Cormorant Township is located in Becker County.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The DNR declined to do a recorded interview about this case, but one DNR official familiar with the case said Cormorant Township has a pattern of questionable lakeshore variances. He said this case was so far over the line the agency took the unusual step of challenging the decision in court. MPR news agreed not to use his name because he wasn't authorized to speak about the case.

Nearly 200 local units of government regulate shore-land development across Minnesota, making thousands of decisions each year.

The DNR rarely challenges those local zoning decisions in court, fighting only a couple of cases in the past five years.

In cases like this one, the decision to sue is ultimately made by the agency commissioner based on a review of local zoning decisions, said Kent Lokkesmoe, DNR waters division director.

"What's their decision-making process been historically? Do they typically do a good job? Is this an anomaly or is it a pattern? We don't take suing local government lightly," he said.

A "LOSE-LOSE" SITUATION FOR HOMEOWNER

The lawsuit stopped construction on Hanson's lake home. His attorney, Charles Ramstad, said his client has already spent thousands of dollars, and now has a lake property he can't use.

"This is a lose-lose situation for Mr. Hanson in this case. He had a project that was planned to be done this summer," Ramstad said. "Even if this were to simply go away at this stage, he's still on the short end of the stick."

Cabin
Richard Hanson has halted construction on his Lake Ida home after the Minnesota DNR filed a lawsuit which contends Hanson received an inappropriate variance from the Cormorant township board. The DNR believes Hanson's new home should be moved back from the lakeshore.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

If the variance is overturned, Hanson would be forced to tear out the footings already put in place.

Ramstad said his client wants to settle the case rather than engage in a protracted legal battle.

Township officials say they haven't yet decided how to respond to the lawsuit. Township Supervisor Steve Sorenson said the DNR challenge was completely unexpected. He called it a David versus Goliath situation.

"We've never had a case like this," Sorenson said. "We didn't even know it was possible I guess to be honest with you. So this is new territory for us. We were kind of taken aback by it."

Cormorant Township and Hanson have asked the court for an extension of the 20-day period to respond to the lawsuit.