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Board of Adjustment grapples with opening variance door

As Hubbard County lakeshore development continues, albeit at a much slower pace than a decade ago, existing property owners are nonetheless sensitive to changes in the status quo, and increasingly voicing those concerns to the Board of Adjustment.

At Monday's monthly meeting, the board heard continued objections to a 33-foot easement request on Big Mantrap Lake, and new objections to a proposal to build a two-story home on Little Wolf Lake because lights from the glass-fronted structure would shine out on the lake at night, disturbing the wilderness atmosphere.

And, increasingly, the board is becoming more divided in its approach to granting variance requests.

Member Earl Benson is taking a hard-line approach, maintaining that opening the door to one request is tantamount to opening a floodgate.

"I can't go along with this," Benson said when a Ham Lake property owner wanted to convert the second story of his garage to living quarters. "What are we going to say to the next person that wants a guest cabin on a lot too small for one?"

But Benson also admits to mistakes made. He recently acknowledged the board erred last winter when it denied some Island Lake residents permission to expand their home, instead requiring the homeowners to demolish the property and move the home back on a bluff. Benson said he thinks the board was too harsh.

Board chair Charles "Chick" Knight is increasingly asking variance applicants to exhaust all other avenues before coming before his committee.

Knight proposed dismissing the Big Mantrap Lake easement request until the residents could work out a solution on their own. Then, once agreed upon, the property owner seeking the variance could re-apply, he suggested.

"Right now not all avenues have been pursued," he said.

A variance costing $275 is granted when there is "unnecessary hardship" for the property owner to comply with provisions in the Hubbard County Shoreland Management Ordinance. The application fee is non-refundable.

-In the Big Mantrap Lake request by Michael and Lisa Reinhart to grant a 33-foot easement so they can subdivide their 12-acre parcel to give their daughter a tract, they were seeking relief from the 33-foot easement requirement for new parcels of land under the ordinance.

Residents along Jack Pine Lane, where the Reinhart property sits, aren't about to grant the easement.

Reinharts' attempts to get the easement from neighbors "was met with resistance," admitted Tom Miller of Arro Land Surveying, representing Reinharts.

Some residents along the Jack Pine Lane have legally recorded 10-foot easements; others have 10-foot "easements by prescription," a term applied when, through continuous, open use of property, an easement is created over time. But the residents have universally opposed the 33 feet being requested under the ordinance.

"It would boil down to a court proceeding if they can't get it legally," Miller told the board.

"We all have easements on a 10-foot road in its present course," said lakeshore owner Helen Marsh. "We are not objecting to Mr. Reinhart having the same easement. Our objection is to his request for a 33-foot road, which would put it in my basement."

The board tabled the application request for one year, giving the Reinharts time to either get permission from the neighbors or go through the court process.

-In the Ham Lake application, an after-the-fact request by Robert and Margaret Harken to finish the second floor of their garage to house overflow company, board members debated what constitutes a "guest cabin."

Harkens got a permit to build a one-story garage, then built a two-story structure with the idea it would eventually be converted to living space.

Robert Harken said he planned no bathroom in the garage and it would simply be sleeping quarters.

"It's not really a guest cabin," board member Lou Schwindt said,

"There's no distinction (in the ordinance) between a guest house and a bunkhouse," Environmental Service Offices representative Laird Hensel advised the board.

One resident and the White Oak Township board opposed granting the request because of the small lot size.

Others disagreed. "To call it a guest cabin is a bit of a stretch," wrote Charles and Mary Jones. "Families come to the lake to enjoy the outdoors... and the inconveniences as well."

Schwindt suggested if Harkens connected the two structures into one, they could probably "beat the system. Until it has water, insulation and heat, it's still a garage."

Harken said he didn't come before the board to beat the system and wasn't interested in putting a connective walkway or an upgraded septic system on the property.

The board conditioned approval on Harken's promise that he would not add a bathroom to the garage. The vote passed 3-2, with Knight and Benson voting against it.

-But it was the Wolf Lake proposal that seemed to touch off a debate about altering the character of a lake, and how extreme a hardship must be to grant a variance.

Dan and Kari Fedje Rasmus asked to tear down their existing cabin and built a two-story structure on the footprint. Cat urine from the prior owners' pets permanently made the home unlivable, they said.

The cabin is situated 75 feet back from the lake, which is 75 feet too close on lakes characterized as natural environment lakes.

Benson questioned why the house couldn't be moved back to the required setback as long as the homeowners were tearing it down anyway.

"Moving it back would be a practical difficulty," Schwindt said. "You're abandoning a usable basement."

But it was the proposed 30 foot roof height that brought protests from neighbors, especially lakeshore owner Michael Frey, who claimed it would tower above the lake; lights would shine over the wilderness area of one-story cabins, he argued.

Frey repeatedly questioned where the hardship was.

Board members discussed the fact that new construction allows a 35-foot roofline; the new gable design on the Rasmus home would actually pitch away from the lake, preventing the runoff that currently exists and that the home addition was actually smaller than could have been allowed.

The reason for the variance was the roof height, Hensel explained. Raising the roof height more than 4 feet above the original structure on a renovation or rebuilt home requires a variance, he said. The Rasmus family will be going up 6-9 additional feet.

"Cat pee on the floor is not a proven hardship," Frey protested.

Another resident wrote in opposition of the proposal, saying. "Once a variance is granted, other requests follow. It would be a shame to turn Wolf Lake into another Lake Minnetonka."

The request passed 4-1, with Benson opposed.

-Another after-the fact variance was granted with the board adding a five-year monitoring condition to it.

Larry Stauss paved a 10-foot wide driveway on Lake Plantagenet, when he was permitted only 6 feet. He was required to plant native grasses along his hilly terrain and solve erosion problems created when he made the path to the lake.

-A request by Harold Mackenthun to replace his aging deck on Lake Belle Taine was granted without much discussion. Because the cabin was built with a variance, any alterations to it must be granted by variance, the board said.

-The board also granted a request by David Gaboury to place a driveway going to his garage 6 feet closer to Williams Lake than the 100-foot high water mark allowed. The hilly lot prevented him from putting the driveway anywhere else, the board reasoned.