Polk County Proposal Would Allow More Construction on Lakes and Rivers

Effort underfoot to loosen restrictions on waterfront development.




2 minute read

Balsam Lake in Polk County
Balsam Lake in Polk County (Photo by Peter Rieke via Flickr)

Just as more of Polk County’s lakes have been deemed impaired, the county with the St. Croix River running along its western edge is considering relaxing rules designed to protect its lakes from the impacts of waterfront development.

“Polk County has about 40 miles of St. Croix River frontage and lies within the Apple River watershed, which is one of the largest contributors of phosphorus to the St. Croix River,” Gary Noren, chair of the St. Croix River Association, testified at a recent county hearing.

The county board has been working on updating its comprehensive land use policies for four years. The process has been complicated by amendments introduced by supervisor Herschel Brown, which seek to put private property rights above the conservation of shared waters.

According to Jeff Peterson of the Polk County Lakes and Rivers Association, supervisor Brown’s amendments would:

  • Allow legal nonconforming structures as near as 35′ from the OHWM to be totally rebuilt, even if there is another suitable building site further away from the lake. (The current ordinance already allows ordinary maintenance and repair.)
  • Allow setbacks averaging with only one nearby nonconforming structure. (Current ordinance requires two.)
  • Encourage people to sue the county over land use decisions by offering to pay their legal fees if they win.
  • Make illegal construction and landscaping work legal if not caught within five years by imposing a statute of limitations.
  • Allow accessory buildings to be rebuilt even if they’re too close to the OHWM.
  • Eliminate the lake classification system by reducing the setback on class 2 & 3 waters from 100′ to 75′.
  • Establish as county policy that the right to “the free and unrestricted use of private property” takes precedence over water quality.

Peterson writes that “the fact that the DNR is recommending that eight additional water bodies in Polk County be added to the impaired waters list was cited by a number of people testifying at the public hearings as evidence that now is not the time to relax our shoreland zoning rules.”

He also expressed support for two amendments from supervisor Marilynn Nehring:

  • Require the phasing in of vegetative buffer strips along all shorelines.
  • Require time-of-sale septic inspections for all riparian properties.

Septic system inspections during property sales is required across the river in Chisago County, said river association chair Noren. Speaking at the hearing, he told supervisors that the county’s actions could have a big impact on the St. Croix.

“Good shoreland protection practices help improve water quality in the lakes and rivers of Polk County and that helps improve the water quality of the entire St. Croix watershed,” he said. “Waterfront property owners working together can make vast improvements in water quality as demonstrated by the Deer Lake Association right here in Polk County.”

The ordinance is now in the hands of the new Conservation, Development, Recreation and Education Committee. Their next meeting is set for 9 a.m. Wednesday, September 3, in the county board room.

The period for public comments on the draft ordinance has been extended through 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 2. Comments can be sent by email to county planner Tim Anderson at tim.anderson@co.polk.wi.us.


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Polk County Proposal Would Allow More Construction on Lakes and Rivers