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Board of Adjustment taking a tougher look at variance applications on lakes

COLA attorney Chuck Diessner, at left, and president Dan Kittilson regularly attend Board of Adjustment meetings and offer input on variances. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

The Hubbard County Board of Adjustment has been sticking to a tighter script lately and that is meeting with the approval of lake activists who sued it last year over a variance decision.

Monday morning board member Charles Knight greeted Coalition of Lake Associations president Dan Kittilson as "the defender of the lakes."

Kittilson addressed the board after the monthly meeting to once again stress that the two groups' mission was the same - to protect the shoreland ordinances.

"You're there with us," Kittilson said. "COLA's intent in reviewing the (variance) applications is not to be difficult. It's to work with you and support you."

He thanked the board "for allowing us to share our thoughts" on variances and urged the adversaries to continue to find "common ground."

But he also suggested the board require homeowners to mitigate the effect of their variance requests through shoreline restoration and vegetation projects.

Kittilson noted a report earlier this month by Hubbard County Assessor Bob Hansen that pointed out the economic clout of lakeshore properties on the county's tax base.

"That's where Hubbard County gets their money," Kittilson said.

"Variances are cumulative," he added. One or two on a lake won't make much of a difference, but when dozens are granted, it impacts the lake and affects the water quality, he said.

The Hubbard County Environmental Services Office this winter began providing complete drawings of variance requests, and furnishing COLA members with internal staff recommendations as to whether the board should approve or deny certain requests.

If the board follows the ESO recommendations, which it has more lately, the office furnishes findings of fact to comport with those decisions. Monday board members often read from a prepared script when listing reasons why or why not variances should be granted.

"The analysis Eric (Buitenwerf, Environmental Services Officer) has done and the deliberations by the board are the best I've seen since August of last year," said COLA attorney Chuck Diessner, who has been among the members scrutinizing board decisions since the lawsuit was filed.

The county is appealing an adverse decision in that case. Monday, COLA members generally sided with the board, but urged denial of two variance requests the board ultimately approved.

The board:

n Granted a request to Gail Bliss and Kevin Sharkey to subdivide their lot on Pickerel Lake that was destroyed three years ago by a tornado.

Although it would create one non-conforming lot, the board reasoned the shortage was due to a power line easement that subtracted from the total residential lot suitable area (RSLA) by 5 percent; 20,000 square feet is the requirement. Co-owner Kevin Sharkey said the lot had been subdivided years ago but never recorded.

n Denied a variance request to a Grand Forks couple seeking to build a retirement home on Plantagenet Lake.

Paul and Patricia Brewinski requested a variance to build a corner of their planned deck in a bluff impact zone. They said they'd tried every way possible to locate the house on the lot in a way that would not encroach on the bluff.

"We tried to turn the house," Patricia Brewinski said, "We tried to accommodate all the rules. We've done everything we can do."

The board disagreed and said there was ample space on the lot to scale down either the deck or great room to get the home situated on the lot without even needing a variance.

"There's enough room on the lot to get the deck out of the bluff impact zone," board member Earl Benson said.

The couple said moving the house would line up its backside view with the neighbors' front windows, which they said would be an "unfavorable situation."

"COLA supports the county's analysis," Kittilson agreed. "They could do it without a variance."

n Granted a variance request to Steve Greene of Round Lake to construct a driveway to his home at less than the 150 feet required back from the ordinary high water mark.

"It's the easiest, quickest way to your property without chopping down a lot of trees," board member Lou Schwindt told Greene. "It will cause the least amount of environmental impact. A driveway is an essential part of building a new house."

Greene had requested the variance so he wouldn't have to clear 400-600 feet of trees for a longer driveway. The existing private road near his property also didn't meet the setback, he pointed out.

And board members noted Greene had made numerous positive improvements to the lot already.

n Denied a variance request to James and Linda Zawacki to build a guest cabin on their 3rd Crow Wing Lake property.

The board said the lot lacked enough square footage and lake frontage for the 12-by-16 bunk house.

Board members suggested moving the cabin, which sits 27 feet from the water, back, and adding a second floor onto it instead.

n Denied a variance to David and Pam Johnson to build an 8-by-16 platform onto their Lake Belle Taine cabin to safely exit sliding doors off the living room. Board members told David Johnson if he shaved three feet off the deck, he could build it without a variance. The lake association wrote expressing concerns about the proposal and variances in general.

"I have a problem making this house noncompliant by adding three feet" to the platform, Schwindt said. Once a home has a variance, all other improvements to that structure must be completed with a variance, he noted.

Currently the home is conforming. A smaller platform would allow it to remain conforming, board members said in denying the request.

n Granted a variance to David and Amy Archambault, over COLA's objections, to add a second story bedroom to a non-conforming structure on Lake Belle Taine that doesn't meet the ordinary high water (OHW) mark setback.

Diessner questioned whether the structure could support a second floor or be moved back.

Buitenwerf said the plan had his department's support.

Diessner and COLA members, who attended the site visitation last week, said it was disappointing no one measured the home's distance from the lake.

Diessner suggested denying the variance because it fit the category of "what is a need versus what is a want."

This request was purely to accommodate a larger family, he said. The home "should be redesigned to make it compliant."

n Approved a variance over COLA's objections for Robert and Diana Carter to add a garage to a home under construction and approved by a variance that is less than the 100-foot OHW setback and too close to the side lot line.

The owner of the adjacent lot, Hubbard Township, voted in favor of the variance earlier.

Diessner suggested the ESO analyze the facts of the current variance request and not consider the previously granted one allowing placement of the home. He questioned if the earlier variance would have been granted with the garage in the plans.

But board members said the location of the Carter garage, even though it will fill the entire lot alongside the home, would drain away from the lake.

Architect Stephen Holt said he looked at other locations to place the garage but determined next to the cottage would present the least amount of drainage issues, especially since the lake is moving away from the lot at the point where the garage would be attached to the house.

The board also had a changing of the guard for 2011, with Jerry Cole volunteering to be the new board chair. Current board chair Lou Schwindt was elected vice-chair.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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