Lake improvement districts help property owners protect water quality, fight invasive species

Lake Improvement District
Marion Lake in Otter Tail county has no aquatic invasive species. But some local residents worry a public boat landing is an open door for invasive plants or zebra mussels to enter the lake. They want authority to raise local taxes to pay for invasive species programs.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Property owners throughout Minnesota are increasingly turning to a new funding tool called lake improvement districts to protect water quality and fight the spread of invasive species.

But the new taxes the districts levy are dividing residents around several Minnesota lakes, including Marion Lake in Otter Tail County. To settle the dispute, residents will vote July 20 on whether to approve the Marion Lake Improvement District.

A few miles off state Highway 10 near Perham, Minn., Marion Lake still has good water quality and is not yet plagued with invasive species. But many property owners point to nearby lakes infested with zebra mussels and invasive plants. They want new taxes to build a war chest to fight off potential invasions.

If approved by voters in a referendum, the Marion Lake Improvement District would be the first in the state that is not in response to a specific problem.

FAQ: Invasive species in Minnesota

Ten neighbors who favor the district recently gathered on the deck of George and Ellen Palmer's home to discuss strategies that could help them win an upcoming referendum on the Marion Lake Improvement District.

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Marion Lake neighbors Steve Gribble and Tom Davis
Marion Lake resident Steve Gribble (left) shows neighbor Tom Davis a list of people he says support establishing a Lake Improvement District in the area. Gribble runs a resort on the lake and says the area needs a local source of revenue to protect Marion Lake from invasive species.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

" I don't think anybody around this table wants to pay more taxes," said Ellen Palmer, who served coffee, rolls and the argument for local taxes. " But we don't want our lake destroyed either. And when you do address those problems it should be done fairly. In other words everybody should have to pay some."

There is an existing lake association on Marion Lake that collects voluntary $25 annual dues from about 150 of the 250 properties. But some residents decided a tax based on property ownership would be a more equitable way to pay for protecting the lake's water quality. They propose a $50 annual assessment on each lake property.

There are 39 active lake improvement districts in the state, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Assessments vary, but annual payments typically range from $50 to $150. Lake improvement districts can raise revenue through assessments, service charges or a tax on the value of each property.

Palmer sent a survey to everyone around the lake. She said more than half the property owners responded and nearly all of them supported a Lake Improvement District.

"Until the state of Minnesota is willing to actually sell this lake to us as owners, we should not assume the responsibility of ownership."

So they asked the Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners to set up the district. The county held a public hearing last August where Palmer said opposition to the idea first surfaced.

"It was like a bomb went off. There were people who were very upset," she said. "So we don't know what happened, except we feel people became very alarmed at the idea of a tax."

Despite opposition, the Otter Tail County board has approved the Marion Lake district and five others. Residents of Star Lake in Otter Tail County are currently collecting signatures to challenge a lake improvement district approved earlier this year.

Otter Tail County has never rejected a request. The only county with more districts is Crow Wing, with eight.

That fired up opponents like Rick Snelgrove, who led a petition drive that gathered enough signatures to bring the lake district to a vote.

"I mean what part of, 'there's nothing wrong with our lake,' don't people understand?" Snelgrove asked. " It's sort of like getting hit in the forehead with a raindrop and deciding you better start taxing to build an ark."

Only one lake improvement district has been rejected by voters after winning county approval, DNR officials say. That happened in Douglas County in 2003.

Rick Snelgrove, Earl Gordon
Marion Lake neighbors Rick Snelgrove (left) and Earl Gordon meet near Snelgrove's Marion Lake cabin on July 2, 2013. Both men oppose establishing a Lake Improvement District that would have the authority to raise local taxes to pay for water quality improvements. They say that Minnesota lakes are publicly owned and the state should pay to protect the water.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

This year, in addition to the Marion Lake vote, residents of Lake Minnewawa in Aitkin County have gathered enough signatures to challenge their lake improvement district. That vote will likely be held next month.

Snelgrove said the water is public property and anyone can use it, so the state should be responsible for water quality.

Supporters of the new taxing district argue the state isn't doing the job.

George Palmer said lake property owners need to step up because the Department of Natural Resources can't protect every lake.

"They don't have a funding mechanism to do any of these things," he said. "I think that we're responsible because we feel what we have in our homes and in our lake lots is a valuable asset."

Palmer worries his home value will decline if the lake becomes infested with invasive species like zebra mussels.

The debate has split longtime friends, with both sides accusing the other of misinformation and dirty tricks. Some residents contend adding a new layer of government will mean never-ending property tax increases.

Among them is Earl Gordon, who bought land on Marion Lake in the 1960s. He said local residents can't afford the added burden of being responsible for fixing any water quality issues that arise in the future.

"I don't see it as a property owner's responsibility," Gordon said. "We, as property owners, especially lakeshore property owners, are paying our fair share. Until the state of Minnesota is willing to actually sell this lake to us as owners, we should not assume the responsibility of ownership."