There is no other lake quite like Lake St. Croix: twenty-five miles of mostly clean, slow-moving water stretching from Stillwater to the Mississippi River, bordered by tree-studded beaches and wooded bluffs, twenty miles east of the Minnesota state capitol.
The natural beauty makes it an easy escape from the modern world for thousands of local residents, millions from the Twin Cities, and visitors from all over the world.
A lucky few get to live on the banks, in everything from cabins to castles.
The St. Croix’s wildness and location near a major urban area are at the root of several recent lawsuits, including one that’s headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Contentious construction projects have plagued the lower St. Croix since 2010, when the Minnesota Supreme Court let billionaire Stanley Hubbard expand his house on the river in Lakeland. When the state lost its power to enforce Wild and Scenic standards, local communities were left to seek a balance on their own.
Unrelated to the Hubbard ruling, the issue has now shown up in Wisconsin. A family that inherited property south of Hudson is challenging St. Croix County rules that prohibit them from selling part of the land because the lot would not meet building codes intended to protect the river’s scenery.
Two courts have already agreed that their property rights were not violated, so in April the Murrs siblings appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices will hear arguments on the case this October.
Lawyers are working long hours and media reports have portrayed a pitted fight.
Building a better way
The courts of last resort don’t have to be where these debates end, says Natalie Warren. Working for the St. Croix River Association, she is trying to bring consistency and collaboration to a process that has often been a bitter battle.
“At the end of the day, people want to know what are the restrictions, is this worth my time and money?” Warren says. She is trying to figure out how to answer those questions with property-owners, local governments, and builders.
She recently visited a lot on the river with a builder and his clients. They were walking the land and discussing the design of the house they wanted to build. Along with talking about where the driveway would be located, they were able to discuss how far the house must be from the edge of the bluff.
“Hopefully now they’re going to be able to make plans that are what the landowner wants, and have appropriate setbacks,” Warren says.
That hasn’t been the case when everybody first comes together only when the city council is voting on a variance. By then, a great deal of time and money has already been invested and construction plans have been drawn up – and people are already dreaming about living there.
In a cooperative process, “The first plans that the landowners will see are in conformation,” Warren says.
In danger of being loved to death
It’s not surprising to Warren that conflicts come up, because it’s easy to forget how rare a river the St. Croix really is.
“Less than one percent of rivers nationwide are Wild and Scenic, and most of them are out West, or in Alaska,” she says. “But this one is so close to a metro area, of course there will be development pressure.”
The inevitable tension between its wildness and its location is why the river is now at the center of a Supreme Court case.
The legal issues in question are complex: regarding its history of ownership, buildable areas, and shared property laws. The underlying argument is simply about what takes priority: property rights or river protection.
Former U.S. Vice President and river champion Walter Mondale took the side of the St. Croix in a brief (PDF) he recently submitted with SCRA and American Rivers.
“To allow unchecked private development would prioritize the preferences of shoreline property owners, who constitute a minority of river users, to the detriment of the majority of people who recreate on the St. Croix River,” the brief reads.
The river advocates point to three facts to support its argument: the river’s federally-recognized scenic, recreational, and ecological values; local desire to protect the river; and the law’s intention to achieve protection through local, state, and federal action.
For their part, if the owners can’t sell the property, they want the government to pay them for the parcel.
“If regulators tell you that you can’t use your land, you must be reimbursed,” their attorney, John M. Groen of the property rights group Pacific Legal Foundation, says.
Not surprisingly, this case arose when the family had already fallen in love with designs for major renovations to their cabin. They would pay for it with the proceeds of the lot sale. Then, like many river property owners, they found themselves fighting the rules that keep the St. Croix so special.
Seeking a local solution
Natalie Warren sees several things that need to happen to support stewardship. Property-owners, builders, and government have to come together earlier in the process. There must be consistency and transparency. People should know the Wild and Scenic restrictions before they even start shopping for riverfront property.
“People have an image of a lake house, but this river is so unique that you can’t do it here,” Warren says. “It’s confusing when people don’t know how it’s protected, or why it’s protected.”
Like the recent homesite visit with all the interested parties, several steps are already underway to improve the situation. For example, the DNR is talking directly with local builders to improve communication and prevent problems before they arise.
Warren has been working with city managers and administrators, who are happy for the help. St. Croix River zoning is often a very small part of their very big jobs. And, they don’t want to constantly fight either their residents or the DNR.
So they have been working on a landowners’ guide to the St. Croix, meeting with those lucky few who wish to build on the river early in a new project, and drafting a checklist to ensure each proposal is treated equally. This MN DNR brochure shows the bluff setback standards and other information.
“Let’s get the process down so well that there won’t be arbitrary decision,” Warren says.
That way, maybe everybody can truly enjoy the Wild and Scenic and unique St. Croix River.
Unrelated note: Starting June 29, Natalie Warren and five other women will embark in a six-person canoe for the Yukon River Quest, a 444-mile race in Canada’s Klondike region. You can follow their progress at this link (team #77, The Aurora Collective).