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DNR threatens suit over Detroit Lakes motel, condo plan

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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is threatening legal action if the city of Detroit Lakes, Minn., approves a proposed lakeside hotel project.  

The $11.3 million project would replace an aging 30-unit resort on the shore of the city's namesake lake with a 69-unit motel, nine condominiums and a restaurant. 

The project sits across the street from the busiest beach in the city and won't provide enough green space to offset the expansion in lakeshore use, said DNR Hydrologist Rodger Hemphill. If there's not enough green space, increased runoff could send excess nutrients and pollution into the lake. 

"The way the project is proposed, it doesn't fit the size of the property that they're looking at putting it on," he said.

The Detroit Lakes planning commission approved the project last week despite concerns raised by the DNR, the Pelican River Watershed District and the local lake association. The city council has the project on its Tuesday night agenda. It can approve the project, reject it or send it back the planning commission for redesign. 

The DNR wrote to the mayor and city council saying the hotel project "demonstrates a disregard for state laws that protect shoreland areas from high impact development." It threatened to sue if the council approves the project as proposed. 

The city ordinance allows 35 percent of a development to be pavement or anything that doesn't absorb rainfall. That includes buildings, parking lots and sidewalks. 

This project would have more than twice the allowable impervious surface. That's an extreme deviation from the rules, Hemphill said. 

"Planned unit development provisions are kind of a compromise already where we're allowing higher density of people which is allowing higher use of the shoreline," he said. "The tradeoff is more protection for the lake in the preservation of green space."

Another concern is the height of the building. It's 52 feet tall, twice what the ordinance allows. 

The mayor and city administrator declined to comment. The project developer did not respond to an interview request.

The city does not believe it is allowing an excessive departure from the rules in this case, said Detroit Lakes City Attorney Charles Ramstad.

"I think this is a matter of judgment and opinion as to what is excessive and what is not," he said. "The city's position is simply that it is for the city to decide whether they are or they are not appropriate."

Local governments can establish shoreland ordinances to regulate development. They must meet minimum standards set by the state. 

Ramstad says the law allows flexibility for what are called planned unit developments such as hotels or apartments. 

The DNR is willing to work with the city but the lake needs to be protected, Hemphill said.

The DNR is also raising questions about previously approved projects. In its letter the agency said, "It appears that the city has a consistent history of circumventing the shoreland standards."