Environmentalism and Density on Minnesota's Lakes

Detroit Lakes, MN.

Detroit Lakes, MN.

A small town in Minnesota just gave an extended middle finger to one of the state’s most impotent bureaucracies. What is setting up is a school yard brawl between two underweight, skinny greasers with switchblades. Could be a lot of slapping and name calling, but if things go horribly wrong there is the potential that someone gets their throat slit.

Detroit Lakes is a town very similar to my hometown of Brainerd, with the primary distinction being that their auto-based, Ponzi-scheme development blowout happened within the city limits where here in Brainerd that mess was absorbed in the neighboring (competing) city of Baxter. In a grass is greener kind of way, I’ve always perceived them to be doing a little better than we are here. I’m probably wrong.

The current dispute between Detroit Lakes and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is over an $11.8 million hotel and restaurant very near Detroit Lake. The Star Tribune reports:

The complex would include nine condominiums, a 69-unit Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott and a 4,000-square-foot restaurant at the intersection of W. Lake Drive and Washington Avenue. The 2.78-acre site sits across the street from the shores of Detroit Lake.

“It’s a pretty big deal for a town the size of Detroit Lakes,” Mayor Matt Brenk said. The hotel would fill in a “kind of blighted area” that town planners have targeted for development, he said.

Pretty big deal, indeed. So what is the DNR all bent out of shape about? The article continues:

In a Feb. 24 letter, state hydrologist Rodger Hemphill advised the city against approving the variances needed for the project, saying it violated open space requirements, packed too many units into the available space and is more than twice as tall as local ordinances allow for a project that close to the lake.

The development plan “demonstrates a disregard for state laws that protect shore land areas,” he wrote.

His letter was followed by one from the attorney general’s office.


This was the exact kind of dispute I found myself in the middle of back when I ran my own planning firm for a decade. It was also the kind of thing that taught me the ridiculousness of zoning and the sheer folly of setting statewide land use standards absent any real coordination of transportation, taxing and economic development policy. There are dozens of silly nuances here but I want to focus on one in particular, the notion that the project “packed too many units into the available space.” Or, as many of you like to say: density.

Without looking at the specifics of the proposal, I can still discern that this project violates state mandated density requirements. Density is one of the primary tools the state uses to address environment issues around lakes, particularly in regards to water quality. This project is way over the limit. Not even close.

State law proscribes the number of units that can be built – the overall density – based primary on two factors: the amount of shoreline and the land area of the lot in question. For a lake like this, a property owner would be allowed one unit if they have both 100 feet of shoreline and a ½ acre of land. If they want two units, they essentially need to double that. There are processes where commercial properties can get density bonuses – giving the planner gods a codegasm – but it doesn’t amount to much more than a doubling, and that is if all the performance measures are met.

Now I would be perfectly fine with this approach, especially if there is a scientific correlation between density and impacts to water quality. Let’s assume there is (I am highly doubtful). Here’s the problem with regulating density as the primary way to achieve environmental objectives: everything else gets really silly.

The site as pictured in Google Earth. Click the image to explore further.

The site as pictured in Google Earth. Click the image to explore further.

First, the density regulation does little to recognize that this lot is within a city. One unit per half acre of land is absolutely not feasible if one is going to provide municipal sewer, water, storm sewer, roads, sidewalks, yet all the land within 1,000 feet of this lake is bound by this density requirement (it actually becomes more restrictive the further you are from the lake – ponder the silliness of that). Places designed to be walkable are illegal in Minnesota if they are on or near a lake (and we have 13,000+ lakes). This is government mandated financial failure of government.

The density requirement also makes no consideration for the fact that we already have significant public investments in place. I can look at the street this is proposed on and see clearly that this is a form of state aid street. In short, they are getting a gas tax subsidy to over-engineer it in the name of growth and safety. I’ve also worked in enough of these places to know that their sewer and water systems have been heavily subsidized by the state and/or federal government. The left hand builds all this public infrastructure to encourage intense development while the right hand prevents cities from using it.

Now I’m all for environmental regulations and I acknowledge that it is critically important for the state’s economic health and our overall prosperity to protect the ecosystem of this lake from degradation. It’s just that these rules don’t do that. Not even close. Using the dilution-is-the-solution-to-pollution axiom, what these rules do is spread the development out over a broad area. The result: the entire shoreline gets developed with the same, minimal regulations we can all agree to and state officials can watch the ecosystem die from a thousand cuts. Thank you, NIMBYs.

The alternative is one I’ve advocated in favor of for nearly two decades, to the ridicule of almost all working in this realm: We need to treat cities and non-cities differently.

In cities, we are investing lots of money to provide infrastructure and services. Let’s do it right. We can create the critical mass in our cities to build and support all of the systems necessary to handle sewage, manage runoff and essentially mitigate the impacts of building. This requires not just a different set of land use regulations but a different understanding of capital investments, tax policy and transportation spending. Let’s build great cities; Strong Towns.

In non-cities – areas outside of the city – we are not going to make these capital investments successfully and so our focus needs to be on protecting the ecosystem by limiting impacts. We need a light footprint. Why would we have the same coverage limits inside a city -- where we can build and manage stormwater systems -- that we have outside a city, where those systems don’t exist? We shouldn’t, but we do.

For environmentalists, cities are an opportunity for intensive management and mitigation of environmental impacts while areas outside of cities are an opportunity for a light footprint.

In the marketplace, this provides people with distinct options for lake living. Would you prefer an urban shoreline with a manicured beach next to an intense, walkable city or would you prefer a more rustic, woods and lakes kind of lifestyle? Those are real choices, both of which can be provided in a way that is economically viable and environmentally sensitive.

Minnesota's regulatory vision for its shoreline: low density suburbanization, often subsidized with state/federal investments in sewer systems.

Minnesota's regulatory vision for its shoreline: low density suburbanization, often subsidized with state/federal investments in sewer systems.

Of course that’s not what we’ve done. We’ve suburbanized our shoreline just as the state laws require us to do. This has created (temporarily) some jobs and economic growth but has crippled lake ecosystems while also bankrupting our cities. Oh, and we’ve empowered a bunch of NIMBY lake property owners to fight developments like this and keep all these people off of their lake (unfortunately, I could write a book about my experiences with this particularly vile brand of NIMBY).

One last thing: the two most damaging things for lake water quality is stormwater runoff and sewage infiltration. Suburbanizing the shoreline has dramatically increased the stormwater problem while simultaneously making it impossible to manage (death by a thousand cuts). The sewage problem we’ve temporarily solved with (of course) state and federal programs to subsidize municipal sewer extensions to environmentally sensitive areas. I worked on some of these pipes-for-millionaires projects back in my engineering days. It took this extreme kind of project – and the whining from the wealthiest people I know over the cost passed on to them, as highly subsidized as it was – to help me start to question the financial underpinnings of our development pattern.

This fight between Detroit Lakes and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is a superficial one. Of course we need environmental laws and, of course, cities need to follow them. Of course we need successful cities and, of course, that takes successful development. Of course we need to protect our lakes and the ecosystems that sustain them. Of course.

And, of course, none of those things we need to do will happen regardless of the outcome of this spat, but there could be a lot of blood if one of those blades strikes an artery. 

Related stories