Disagreements over scenery and property rights on the Lower St. Croix have arrived at the Minnesota state capitol.
After four years of conflicts about construction, legislators are seeking to address a legal issue that has weakened the river’s Wild & Scenic protections. A bill introduced last week (PDF) would allow the Department of Natural Resources to once again veto local variances for development along the river.
Senator Katie Sieben, who represents Senate District 54, which includes Afton and Denmark Township along the Lower St. Croix, is leading the legislative effort. Sieben told the Star Tribune that the legislation is “an attempt to re-establish that there be some consistent oversight of variances.”
The conflict began when billionaire media mogul Stanley Hubbard sued the DNR over his plans to build an 8,000-square-foot house on an existing foundation in Lakeland. The DNR had overturned a variance the city issued because the construction violated Wild and Scenic Rivers Act rules, which cover things like building size and proximity to the river.
The Star Tribune reports that such rejections were relatively rare during the 34 years between when the river was designated as a U.S. Wild and Scenic River and a 2010 state Supreme Court ruling in Hubbard’s favor. According to the newspaper, only about 60 variances were requested, and more than 90 percent were approved by the DNR.
The issue reared up again last year over plans to tear down an old house in Lakeland and build a new one. The city again issued a variance, and the DNR unsuccessfully sought to block construction. The city ultimately approved the variance and let construction go forward.
The new legislation was discussed in a committee hearing yesterday and passed to the Committee on State and Local Government, which is chaired by bill supporter senator Sandra Pappas and includes St. Mary’s Point senator Karin Housley.
The pressure to weaken the WSRA is relentless. I would not count on Karin Housley to be a friend of the river in the face of wealthy home owners that want their river view and mansion in ways that are gross violations of the WSRA’s intent. I would not even count on the DNR to administer their interpretation of the law. That agency has proven to be extremely vulnerable to the views of the commissioner, a position that has been dominated by resource extraction proponents for the last 14 years. The best steward of the Valley and the WSRA would be the Park Service, a more professional agency that is less susceptible to the whims of politicians and lobbyists. Unfortunately, the DNR will have to do. If you carve the valley up into townships and rely on them to preserve it the WSRA is dead. Already, the Klobuchar/Bachmann/Dayton/Harycki legislation that allowed a freeway bridge of unprecedented proportions to be built on top of Stillwater has weakened the WSRA considerably and provided a template for developers, highway builders and cities to encroach and violate the original act. The beauty and value of the St. Croix Valley is only as sustainable as efforts to presrve it are successful. Let’s hope enough passionate citizens exist to persuade elected representatives to do the right thing and leave these decisions on variances to the DNR.