Chris Pence stands at the top of a bank where a new cabin is being landscaped on Bay Lake, pointing out all the landscapers are doing right. They have built just a small sand beach, protected by sediment barriers and flanked by trees and tall grass. Swales at the bottom of the hill catch rainwater before it runs into the lake.
Pence is the land services supervisor for Crow Wing County, and standing next to him is the cabin's owner, Dave Perry, wearing shorts and sunglasses. "We're trying to do everything right," Perry says, sounding a bit nervous to have a county zoning official on his property.
Pence explains why it's important to keep rain water and sediment out of the lake. "Phosphorus clings to sediment," he says, which leads to algae growth. "Silt is one of the biggest sources of pollution." This is news to Perry, who has been vacationing on Bay Lake since 1979. Thinking more about it, he suggests he may put in a rain garden.
Crow Wing County, the heart of Minnesota's cabin country, has been criticized in recent years for laxity in the way it manages lakefront development. Yet, in March, the county adopted a land use ordinance that has been hailed as one of the most progressive in the state. It's not perfect and some specific provisions seem to step backward — one allows resorts to have more impervious surfaces that foster rapid runoff; another allows guest cabins on standard lots.
But taken as a whole, the ordinance is viewed as a leap forward and a good example of a local community taking action to address runoff, a diffuse and hard-to-regulate pollution source. Paul Radomski, a research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who served as technical advisor on the ordinance, says, "I thought they did a good job of bringing the science into it. Relatively speaking, looking across the state, it's very progressive."
Because of the change, "They will do a better job of managing runoff from lake and river lots which will reduce pollution," Radomski adds. "On a site-by-site basis, this will have an impact." Thanks to sandy soil, water quality in Crow Wing County hasn't suffered unduly, according to Pence. He cites the county's goal this year of reducing total phosphorus entering local waters by 50 pounds. This is a small percentage of the total, he says, but the mere fact that the county has set the goal is a "huge step forward." Pence adds, "One half pound of phosphorus produces 300 pounds of algae."
The new zoning code applies to anyone building a new cabin or seeking a permit or variance to make a change. If lots have more than 15 percent impervious surfaces, applicants must submit a storm water plan to adequately manage a one-inch rain event. If they have 20 percent or more (up to a maximum 25 percent), applicants must create buffers along the water line. The ordinance also increases the minimum lot size and setbacks for septic systems.
It's modeled on a set of new, more restrictive statewide shoreline standards, drafted in part by Radomski, which was rejected by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty on his way out of office. Now the DNR is checking to see whether it can resubmit the standards directly to Gov. Mark Dayton or whether it must route them through the Legislature. If adopted, counties across the state would find themselves enforcing standards similar to those in Crow Wing County.
Critics point out that the county's original proposal was stricter — one provision would have imposed a 15 percent impervious surface limit across the board for properties within 1,000 feet of a lake. But pushback from developers, real estate agents and some property owners led to compromise. "Is the ordinance perfect?" Pence asks. "No. But we're doing more now for water quality than before."
"What was done in Crow Wing County is pretty significant."
The standards were forged after a lengthy comment period and several packed, contentious public hearings, in which some participants argued that tighter zoning codes would curtail development. One cabin owner accused officials of "crushing" people's dreams.
Phil Hunsicker of the Crow Wing Lakes and Rivers Alliance and Envision Minnesota lauds county commissioners for welcoming public input and is, frankly, amazed the ordinance passed. "What was done in Crow Wing County is pretty significant," he says. "In the past, the county hasn't been proactive in coming up with environmental protections in ordinances. This was significant because they've decided to take the lead on some of this stuff."
"It was quite a step to take," Hunsicker adds, while noting the proof will be in how adamantly the county enforces the new rules.
In the past, the county relied on flurries of letters to code violators rather than in-person visits, says Pence, who started his job last September after leaving Cass County. "We could have had a requirement that people prepare for a thousand-year storm, but nobody was doing it." These days, enforcement has been reorganized and beefed up, even as budgets have been reduced, and, he says, "My staff will make a call or make contact within 10 days of a complaint."
State law makes it complicated for local officials to deny a variance — basically, a zoning exception — and the county continues to approve them more than 80 percent of the time. But the upshot of the new zoning law, says Pence, is that property owners must give something in return. Maybe it's a rain garden. Maybe it's a vegetative barrier. Maybe it's a couple of rain barrels.
On Pelican Lake's Cree Bay, Pence crosses the lawn of a cabin that was built in 2006 too close to the water. "When [the previous owner] got the permit, there was no site visit from our staff," he says. The owner proceeded to tear out waterfront grasses and cattails in an effort to establish a big lawn and beach. When the property was resold after a foreclosure, the county saw an opportunity.
In return for an after-the-fact variance, the owners agreed to install rain gardens and re-established the lush wetlands at the edge of the lake. "This is what the ordinance is designed to produce," says Pence. "You have to work within the confines of what the lot will do. If you want a sandy beach, buy a lot with a sandy beach."
"Variances are never big," he says. "They are never for thousands of square feet. You've just improved that lot for water quality by allowing the variance for that deck or small addition."
"Land is God's creation and it's our responsibility to take care of it," adds Pence, who attended seminary school and earned a Masters in theology. "I really feel it's a calling, being able to provide services to the community you're in. It can matter if it's done right."