Helpful tips for Lower St. Croix landowners looking to modify their property in protected zones

Plan ahead and talk to the right people to prevent conflict with riverway regulations.




4 minute read

Natalie Warren is River Corridor Steward for the  St. Croix River Association.

Lower St. Croix River (Photo by Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

The St. Croix River area is a beautiful place to live, work, and play. The natural beauty of its forests, rivers, and trails together with the civilized comforts of its hotels and restaurants attract tourists and residents alike.

It is uncommon to find such tranquil waters and scenic views so close to a large metropolitan area.

There is a reason for the abundance of forests and relatively good water quality.  The Lower St. Croix River was included in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1972 to preserve habitat and water resources for future generations.

Every agency, landowner, and visitor to the river shares the responsibility to preserve and protect this national gem.

North of Stillwater, the National Park Service and the MN and WI Department of Natural Resources own and manage much of the land along the water. South of Stillwater, most of the land along the River is privately owned. In the Lower River, there are zoning rules in place to help private property owners do their part to maintain the scenic qualities of the St. Croix Riverway.

Land within the Riverway boundary (bordering the river from Taylor’s Falls down to the confluence with the Mississippi River) is protected through unique building restrictions in local ordinances.

Back in the 1970s, citizens, local officials, and government agencies agreed where the Riverway boundary would be in each community (generally, it follows the bluff line). Restrictions on setbacks, height, and even the color of structures are outlined in the Riverway rules, with the intent of preserving the natural qualities of this area years to come.

If you live within the Riverway boundary, you’ll need to know about the special rules that protect the Lower St. Croix River, especially if you ever want to make changes to your property.

Understanding the rules is just the first step in a long and sometimes complicated process. Here are five things you can do to save time and money on rebuild/remodel projects in the Riverway (and to help the River, too! – win, win.).

Talk to the right people, at the right time

While tempting, don’t ask your neighbor if they think you’ll be able to make changes on your property.

Every property is unique and each land-use decision is particular to that property. Ask your local zoning administrator about the restrictions specific to your land before investing in plans. This will save you time and money!

Identify and meet with stakeholders in person

Beyond your local government, the Department of Natural Resources, the watershed district, the city engineer, and others may be active stakeholders, depending on the project.

Communicate early and often with the stakeholders involved. Make sure to meet in person with everyone at a pre-application meeting (usually organized by the local zoning administrator). Again, do this before investing in plans.

Know the process

Understand that the process of applying for a variance or conditional use permit is costly and lengthy. Manage your expectations to avoid unnecessary fees and frustrations. Familiarize yourself with the process to minimize complications and application revisions.

Start with the pre-application meeting, which may include a site visit, to learn about the restrictions on your property. If a land-use application is required, invest in high-quality information. This helps deciding bodies make educated land-use decisions that follow the intent of the law and protect the Riverway for future generations.

Incomplete applications will not be accepted, so spend the money to do it right the first time. Your project, once reviewed by the agencies involved, will be presented at a public hearing where anyone can comment. The local government will approve or deny the application. This process can take months and, in some situations, even years.

Be open to adjustments

If you dream of a two-story bright red shed on your property, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Try not to fall in love with your initial vision because it may have to change – and that’s okay!

You can still do creative, beautiful things with your home.

At a pre-application meeting, each party will work with you to minimize the impact of your project (which sometimes means scaling back) and to express concerns about visibility or structure height. That original two-story bright red shed might end up being a one-story brown shed that still meets your needs.

Be open to adjustments and expect the original idea to evolve.

Mitigate and improve your property

While we all want to be good stewards of the land and water, we are not all trained in natural resource management. It can be difficult to know where to begin.

When making changes to your property, simple actions can improve the land and water for you, your neighbors, and everyone downstream. Are there any old structures on your land? Removing these will decrease impervious surfaces and allow rain to soak into the ground before it runs to a nearby stream or river. Installing a rain garden will capture runoff, and native plantings will decrease erosion and clean the water before it meets the river.

For more information about Riverway rules and to see the Riverway boundary map, visit Contact with questions.

View the St. Croix River Association’s new booklet describing Lower Riverway regulations:


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Helpful tips for Lower St. Croix landowners looking to modify their property in protected zones