Becker County takes tough stand on lake retaining walls
If there's one lesson that came out of the Becker County Planning Commission Tuesday, it's this: For God's sake, people, don't try to build a retaining wall in the lakeshore impact zone.
The planning commission rejected two requests for retaining walls, including one after-the-fact request whose rejection means the wall must be torn down.
It did, however, grant one request for a retaining wall on Middle Cormorant Lake -- a rare occurrence, and due only to the fact that the situation perfectly fit the requirements of the county ordinance: extreme erosion on a bluff with an existing, failing retaining wall.
But that was not the situation on Cotton Lake.
The planning commission rejected an application by Ronald and Laurel Johnson of Moorhead for an after-the-fact conditional use permit for a retaining wall in the shore impact zone at 33426 S. Cotton Lake Road, on Cotton Lake in Erie Township.
Ronald Johnson told the commission that the retaining wall was put on an existing slope and no earth was moved. He said the contractor that did the work is based in Park Rapids and did not get a permit because they aren't required in Hubbard County.
Chairman Jim Bruflodt expressed skepticism about that, and added "you understand that it is ultimately the homeowners' responsibility for getting the permits?"
Kathleen Somers, outgoing president of the Cotton Lake Association, spoke on the Johnsons' behalf.
"I'm typically pretty fanatical about protecting the lake," she said. "I've looked at it and I can't think of anything that could have been done better to protect the lake. All the neighbors think it's fine and hope he can keep it."
Johnson said the wall was installed in part to solve an erosion problem, but commission members, several of whom visited the site, did not agree.
"Looking at these pictures before and after, there doesn't look like much of an erosion problem," said Jim Kovala. "Is (the wall) really necessary?"
"People see a lot of (apparently illegal zoning) things around the lake that makes them say 'whoa -- how'd that happen?'" Somers said. "This is not one of those ... I for one think it's fine -- I think he should be allowed to keep it."
Commission Member Larry Knutson challenged Somers when she said she didn't see any reason not to allow Johnson to keep the wall.
"Typically when you landscape, you follow the ordinance, that's why it shouldn't have been built," he said bluntly.
"I'm not going to argue with you about it," Somers responded after a brief exchange with Knutson.
Because a complaint was filed, the county "has to act on it," said Commission Member Mary Seaberg. "The other things around the lake, probably nobody complained about," she said.
The commission unanimously denied the request and the wall will have to be removed and the yard restored to its former condition.
Another wall falls
The planning commission also rejected an application from Laura and Ronald Knoll of Fargo, requesting approval of a conditional use permit for a boulder retaining wall in the shore impact zone at 15918 E Little Cormorant Road, Lake Eunice Township, Little Cormorant Lake.
The wall would have been installed to prevent erosion and allow for natural plantings and a beach play area.
There was a lot of discussion among the commission, the Knolls and their landscaper about whether it was actually a stone wall or just glorified riprap, but the application was rejected because the request was for a "retaining wall."
A rare 'good wall'
The planning commission had happier news for Barry and Sue Schuchard of Fargo, who requested a conditional use permit to replace a failing retaining wall system in the shore impact zone at 14849 Victory Lane, Cormorant Township, Middle Cormorant Lake.
After viewing the site and looking at photos of very serious erosion (virtually no foliage growing) on a 20- to 25-foot bluff, the commission will recommend approval of a two-tier retaining wall, one four feet high and the other two feet high, to replace an existing wall -- the last of a three tier wall system. The other two walls already failed.
"It appears something needs to be done with the existing, non-conforming retaining wall," said Bruflodt. "He's on a pretty good slope. Otherwise everything is going to run into the lake."
"It's a rare occasion when we get somebody asking for a retaining wall in the shore impact zone that's a good idea," added Kovala.
The request was approved unanimously.
One trailer per lot
A second lesson from the meeting was: Don't ask for permission to park more than one mobile home, camper or RV on a lot -- even if you have God on your side.
After much debate, some angst among commission members and a failed motion to allow it, the planning commission ultimately shot down a request from Pastor George Lemelin of Ogema.
He wanted a conditional use permit to allow up to four mobile homes (50-foot by 100-foot in size) for staff housing at the Harvest Free Will Baptist Church School in White Earth Township.
The pads were all prepared for the mobile homes, which would have been grouped together.
"Why aren't you just subdividing into lots?" asked Kovala.
"It was recommended by the zoning office to go with a conditional use permit because of cost," Lemelin replied. "Because we're a nonprofit organization, I wanted to take the route that would be approved with the least expense."
Zoning Administrator Patty Swenson said she wasn't aware of her office recommending that route. She added that a site plan and plat would be needed because the four mobile homes would constitute a multi-unit private development.
Planning Commission Member Harry Johnston made a motion to approve the request, provided that the mobile homes are removed when no longer used by staff.
"That will be very difficult to enforce," said Knutson.
"We're letting the fact that this is a church cloud our judgment," said another member.
The motion failed 5-3.
Lamelin left in apparent disgust, but was brought back by the news that the failed motion did not mean his request had been rejected.
His reprieve was short-lived, however. The commission then voted 5-3 to deny his request, and he left without saying a word.
He had also requested approval of a cemetery on the property that would be 100-foot by 100-foot in size. The cemetery would be platted in the future and would follow all state and county regulations.
Swenson noted he does not need a survey to create a cemetery, but it must be state-approved and recordable.
The planning commission also disappointed Bruce Richard and Mark Praska of West Fargo, who requested a conditional use permit to allow three recreational vehicles on one parcel on East Little Cormorant Road near Bullhead Lake in Lake Eunice Township.
The heavily wooded property is owned by two families: Each family wanted a camper, with a third camper for an additional family member.
The campers can't be seen by neighbors or from the lake because of the woods, one of the family members said.
County ordinance allows just one camper per lot and it must be moved seasonally, said Swenson.
Commissioners worried about "opening a can of worms" if the request was approved.
"If we allow this to happen we will have a campground on every lot in the county," Kovala said.
"I just can't see it happening."
The request was unanimously denied.
The Becker County Board has final decision-making authority on zoning requests, but usually concurs with planning commission recommendations.