November 26, 2019
George Orning’s masters thesis heavily influenced the statewide shoreland protections. George later served as CURA’s Associate Director, tasked with creating the statewide Lakeshore Development Study.
George Orning’s masters thesis heavily influenced the statewide shoreland protections. George later served as CURA’s Associate Director, tasked with creating the statewide Lakeshore Development Study.

It’s no coincidence that both the Shoreland Management Act and the Center of Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) are celebrating their 50th anniversaries this year. Minnesota’s shoreland management program was one of the first major statewide initiatives to come out of CURA. This milestone year offers a unique opportunity to look back on the history and purpose behind the shoreland program, its beginnings with CURA, trends in shoreland development, and what we can do to improve shoreland development into the future.

Minnesota’s shorelands contain some of the most valuable real estate in Minnesota. These lands are also some of the least suitable for development. They often contain steep slopes, wetlands and challenging soils. They also provide habitat for many plants and animals. The state shoreland program establishes zoning regulations for local governments to manage and minimize shoreland development impacts. Without the shoreland program, Minnesota’s lakes and rivers would likely be more crowded, more developed, and less natural than they are today.

A Shared History

The post-war period of the 1950s and 1960s was a time of incredible growth. Weekend cabins were popping up everywhere. The most visible demand was heavily focused on the Brainerd lakes area, which was easily accessible from the Twin Cities. Lakeshore demand also followed the path of major highways that went through or near other lake areas, as well. Development during this era went largely unregulated, and citizens became increasingly concerned about impacts to water quality, crowding, and changes to the character of lakes and rivers.

In March 1967, George Orning, a University of Minnesota graduate student studying under John Borchert, completed his thesis, “The Process of Lakeshore Development in Crow Wing County.” The study highlighted the fast growth in the county, through the analysis of land records available through the county recorders office. Based on Mr. Orning’s work, Professor Borchert and the business community successfully lobbied the 1967 state legislature to fund a statewide study. The Minnesota Lakeshore Development Study was then prepared by the University of Minnesota Geography Department, through the newly formed Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. The study further detailed statewide shoreland development trends and policy needs, and served as the foundation for the Shoreland Management Act (Minn. Stat. 103F.201-.277). The law passed with large majorities in both the House and Senate and was signed by Governor Harold LeVander on May 28, 1969.

Initially, the law required the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to establish minimum development standards for near shore areas. The law also required counties to adopt these standards in their zoning controls. For many counties this was their first experience with zoning, land use permits, and septic system inspections. Shoreland regulations were extended to cities in 1976.

Today, these regulations - contained in Minnesota Rules, Chapter 6120 (6120.2500-6120.3900) - apply statewide minimum standards to lands within 1,000 feet of lakes (>25 acres in counties, and >10 acres in cities) and 300 feet of rivers. At its core, the program seeks to keep development densities lower in near shore areas through minimum lot sizes and setbacks, which vary based on the sensitivity of the water body to development. Small, shallow water bodies are less resilient to development than large, deep water bodies, and as such, have stricter development standards. Statewide rules also set limits on impervious surfaces, vegetation clearing, and land alterations, as well as other development-related regulations.

Shoreland Development Trends

The development challenges of today go beyond what was observed by Orning and Borchert. While these statewide regulations set the foundation for managing shoreland development, they only go so far. They were last updated in 1989 and do not address current development pressures on small sensitive waterbodies, the scale and intensity of modern development, or the effects of climate change. We still see significant shoreline alterations, vegetation clearing, nutrient runoff, and erosion issues.

The locations in which we are building today are very different than 50 years ago. Our most suitable waters and shorelands have already been developed. What’s left are shorelands only marginally suitable for development. These often include lands with wetlands, floodplains, high water tables, and meandering streams – often with dense aquatic vegetation and critical habitat.

The scale of development we see today was not conceivable 50 years ago. Small seasonal cabins are a relic of the past. There is a growing demand for large second homes on lakes and rivers. Lake country is also attractive to retirees as a primary residence and many lake-rich counties are seeing population increases. Many of these new residents are expanding seasonal cabins into their primary residences and/or tearing down old structures and building new larger ones. Small lakeshore lots platted before the minimum lot size standards of the shoreland rules are not large enough to accommodate large building footprints.

Loss of deep rooted near-shore vegetation is the biggest concern. Vegetation acts as a buffer to hold the soil, capture runoff, and protect against wave action. While shoreland regulations prohibit extensive vegetation clearing, these standards are difficult to enforce. Vegetation removal typically doesn’t require a permit, and it is common for property owners to remove all near-shore vegetation for views of the water. Typically, the vegetation is replaced with a well-fertilized lawn down to the water’s edge. Turf grass roots do not grow deep enough to capture runoff water or withstand wave or ice action. On every developed lake there are examples of property owners continually trying to fix active erosion issues. Riprap and retaining walls do not always solve the problem. Nutrient laden runoff water results in algae blooms, fish kills, and overall loss of water quality. Even large lakes have a finite capacity to absorb the impacts of development.

Challenges & Opportunities Moving Forward

Individual property rights, property values, habitat and water quality are all important values that need to be considered in planning for the future of Minnesota’s shorelands.  

Forward-thinking communities recognize the development challenges unique to their community and many have taken steps to mitigate impacts as best they can. The state minimum standards set the foundation for protection. Many communities have built on this foundation by adopting and enforcing shoreland zoning standards that go beyond the statewide minimums and address the development risks unique to their lakes and rivers. The DNR Innovative Shoreland Standards page showcases a number of examples of local standards that are being implemented around the state to improve resource protection.

CURA recognized the important role that local governments play in zoning and permitting shoreland developments. Shoreland protections are as important today as they were 50 years ago. Shoreland protection and clean water continues to depend on solid state and local government relationships, the willingness to have a conversation about our changing environment and strategies to improve protections.