The city of Lake St. Croix Beach recently applied for a permit to allow up to 50 docks and mooring buoys, managed by the city and rented to residents, along its shoreline. Some residents and environmental groups are opposing the permit because of effects on endangered species and public waters. The National Park Service has also noted several concerns.
Under the terms of the permit the city applied for with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the docks could be up to 10 feet wide and 50 feet long, and would be spaced about 100 feet apart, stretching down approximately a mile of river. The docks have been in place for 30 to 40 years, but it has recently been found that they are in violation of the city’s permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, exceeding the number and size allowed.
“The permit is clear,” resident Chris Smith, who brought the issue to the government’s attention, told the Pioneer Press. “What they are doing is not allowed.”
The city has now applied for a new permit that would allow the expansion. Staff and elected officials say they were simply unaware they were not complying with their permit.
“I didn’t realize there was an issue, and I don’t think anybody else did,” city administrator Dave Engstrom told the newspaper.
The history of the docks and the city’s permitting program stretches back three decades, and includes complicated history, but the current permit is clear about what it allows.
In 1983, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit to the city allowing a total of 35 docks and mooring buoys, including 13 private docks which were “grandfathered in” and exempted from regulations on river development. Over the intervening years, the city has occasionally applied to expand its docks to as many as 66, but has either been rejected or withdrawn the applications.
But in the past several years, dock sizes have grown and the city is allowing 35 docks — plus the 13 “grandfathered” docks. When residents pointed it out to the city, the local government applied for a new permit for the existing expansion, increasing the total docking structures to 50. It would also formally allow the 10-foot wide docks which have been in use for years.
Public comments on the proposal were divided almost equally for and against the revised permit. St. Croix 360 acquired the comments from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through a Freedom of Information Act request. All names or other identifying information was concealed, which the agency said was justified, though personal details are usually part of the public record during comment periods. St. Croix 360 has opted not to appeal the redaction at this time.
“The St. Croix River is already one of the busiest waterbodies in the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin,” one commenter summarized. “The amount of recreational use has increased substantially since the river’s initial designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Dock density is at its highest in the cities of Lakeland and Lake St. Croix Beach. Unlike Lakeland, the shoreline in Lake St. Croix Beach is largely in public ownership, which provides a unique opportunity for improved river stewardship.”
The agency provided 28 citizen comments it received during a 30-day comment period in March. Fifteen opposed the new permit to some extent, and 13 favored it. The National Park Service, which has authority over the section as part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, submitted extensive comments that neither approved nor rejected the request. Instead, the Riverway’s new superintendent, Craig Hansen, wrote to the Corps that the park has several questions, and some concerns, about the proposal.
Before the Park Service can approve such a proposal, it is required by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to “evaluate whether a proposed water resource project within a designated river segment would have a direct and adverse effect on the values for which a river was established,” Hansen wrote. “The Riverway’s values within the lower St. Croix (state-administered zone) are its free-flowing condition, water quality, aquatic, cultural, recreation, and scenic-aesthetic values.”
The National Park Service outlined several areas where more information is needed. Hansen said a survey of endangered mussel species would be necessary, and mitigation planned if any are found, as well as consideration of other threatened plants and animals. He asked for clarification about how close docks would be located to each other and how it might affect other river uses. And the Park Service said consultation with the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office may be needed, and recommended consultation with Native American tribes.
The agency also asked for an analysis of visual impact and other details. Hansen closed by saying the Park Service has concerns about a possible growth in overall dock numbers on the lower river.
“Recreational structures like docks and moorings are abundant throughout the lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and NPS has observed a perceived increase in the number of permit applications for dock structures in recent years,” the agency wrote.
The Park Service won’t begin its full review until it receives the complete application, likely after the Army Corps reviews comments.
The city will also need to receive a permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to allow the 10-foot wide docks, which are required for dock width over eight feet.
Commenters in favor of the expanded permit cited the need for larger, more stable docks because of heavy boat traffic, large wakes, and a one-mile fetch across open water that lets waves build to dangerous heights.
“I have been involved with dock design and building for both Marina’s [sic] and on the open waters of the St Croix River,” one individual wrote. “The USACE and the DNRs have been approving 10’ wide docks on ‘Lake St Croix’ for decades because of the rough waters caused by wind driven waves and miles of fetch, watercraft waves and wind storms.”
Others also noted that the growing popularity of wakeboarding boats, which are designed to create large wakes, has worsened the problem. Several commenters also pointed out that smaller docks are more easily destroyed by the river, and their debris can litter the water and shoreline.
“I have toured the area south of the Hudson bridge after storms and have seen narrow docks and debris washed up on the beaches,” another individual wrote. “The 10ft wide docks provide better security and protection, not only to the boats, but for the shoreline environment.”
Comments from people opposed to the proposal cited not only environmental and scenic impacts, but problems with how the dock permit program is administered. Some homeowners who have received a dock permit have turned around and sold their houses while advertising the dock as part of the package, even though it should be transferred to the next person on the long waiting list.
“There have been three properties that have sold that included a grandfathered dock,” one commenter reported. “This is misleading and unethical. The permits are for a resident, not a property. The new owners do not wait years to have a permit/mooring and then finally a dock. They get it as soon as the transaction is complete.”
The comment connects to another key issue about private use of public resources. The entire riverfront of Lake St. Croix Beach is a public park, but aside from a popular swimming beach, much of it is dedicated to docks. The structures also extend as much as 100 feet into the river, thanks to long gangways that connect the docks to shore.
A coalition of environmental groups called the Legacy of Nature Alliance submitted a comment pointing this out amid other concerns about wildlife and water.
“Shoreland Park is a public park which is rare along the St. Croix River. LONA supports fair and equitable access to public lands for all peoples to learn about, enjoy and respect,” wrote Alliance coordinator Catherine Zimmer. “The proposed docks and moorings will be private property. Permitting the installation of these structures will limit the public’s ability use and enjoy the park, including the impingement on scenic river views, a key component of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It is important public assets are protected from privatization.”
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