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Commentary: New dock permit opens door to larger platforms

Swimming, fishing, sunning, boating or just hanging out, docks often play a key role in making Minnesota summer memories. So, why the sudden fuss about docks and the DNR's new general permit authorizing patio platforms? Why did the Beltrami Count...

Swimming, fishing, sunning, boating or just hanging out, docks often play a key role in making Minnesota summer memories. So, why the sudden fuss about docks and the DNR's new general permit authorizing patio platforms? Why did the Beltrami County Lakes and Rivers Association ask Beltrami County commissioners to opt out of that general permit?

As volunteer members of a Docks Advisory Committee convened by the DNR last fall, we would like to offer some context. When Minnesota first enacted dock rules, only permanent piers over 50 feet long required a permit. Seasonal docks were unrestricted by rule but in practice most were relatively small structures with perhaps a boat lift or two.

In 1982, a dock was formally defined as a "narrow platform extending waterward for ingress and egress of moored watercraft." No permit was needed for docks less than 6 feet wide and 50 feet long. In 2002, the distinction between seasonal and permanent docks was dropped and allowable width increased to 8 feet.

Although agency rules are the result of a highly structured and statutorily authorized process, dock rules have traditionally been interpreted and enforced rather loosely. However, recent redevelopment of high-value lakeshore has led to larger lake homes, often with correspondingly bigger and more elaborate docks and accessory structures.

In 2006, conservation officers cited several owners for docks exceeding the 8-foot maximum width. In response to complaints from these dock owners, the DNR issued a one-year general permit allowing platforms, up to 10.5-feet by 16-feet in size, to be attached to the lake end of docks. Then, last fall, the DNR Division of Waters established the DAC to recommend "creative alternatives" to that initial, expiring general permit.

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The opening line to the DAC's final report noted that, "Most members of the DAC expressed significant reservations about the wisdom of re-issuing another general permit for dock platforms, feeling that doing so might be considered an after-the-fact variance." We also noted that the 2007 general permit was issued without a 30-day review and that no compelling need for large private platforms over public waters had been demonstrated.

Although committee deliberations were occasionally heated, we reached consensus on two key points. First, comprehensive new statewide dock rules were badly needed and, second, if a new general permit were to be issued, it should act only as a temporary bridge that would expire upon completion of new rules, no later than March 2010.

Instead, pressured by a small group of well-connected citizens and dock manufacturers, the DNR commissioner disregarded recommendations of the DAC as well as the scientific evidence provided by his own department. A statewide, five-year general permit allowing 170-square-foot platforms on General Development and Recreational Development lakes was issued in January. This opened the door for the spread of large private dock platforms into parts of Minnesota, such as Beltrami County, where they are currently rare.

This general permit postpones a badly needed revision of dock rules. Meanwhile, it allows structures explicitly forbidden by current rules. General permits are typically used only to streamline approval of activities routinely allowed by individual permit.

Under current rules, individual permits for larger platforms can be issued if they provide "minimum impact solutions to demonstrated needs." As need for private patio platforms over public waters has seldom been demonstrated, individual permits are rarely issued.

What is wrong with large dock platforms? There are, indeed, situations where such structures may be necessary or even beneficial. On balance, however, a one-size-fits-all general permit only serves to accelerate a trend toward ever more sprawling over-water footprints of docks and accessory structures. This trend poses at least three problems.

First, the long established Minnesota Trust Doctrine assures all of us a right to use and enjoy Minnesota public waters equally and in common with riparian owners. When coupled with larger docks, multiple watercraft lifts and other accessory structures, platforms reduce public access to near shore areas.

Second, expansive docks and accessory structures compromise the natural aesthetics of the northern Minnesota experience. While aesthetic considerations are subjective, it is safe to say that most tourists do not visit northern Minnesota because they want to admire our beautiful dock systems.

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Finally, and most importantly, docks and accessory structures have well-documented and largely negative ecological consequences. Fragmenting near shore vegetation opens corridors into important fish nursery areas -- this is one reason why actively feeding adult fish congregate under docks. In addition, losses of rooted vegetation under docks necessarily shifts aquatic productivity toward increased algae and reduced water clarity.

In response to the DNR commissioner's disregard for DAC recommendations and his questionable use of the general permit process, BCLARA crafted and presented a resolution to Beltrami County commissioners asking them to exercise their option to opt out of the general permit, to continue operating under current and legitimate rules until new rules are in place, and to encourage the DNR to immediately initiate a legitimate rule-making process regarding private docks, platforms and accessory structures in the public waters of Minnesota.

So, what now? If you want to risk seeing "soupier" lakes ringed by a virtual boardwalk of complex docks and accessory structures, encourage your county commissioner to vote "no" on BCLARA's resolution. However, if you value public access to public waters, natural aesthetics and ecological integrity of our lakes, encourage your commissioner to vote "yes" on BCLARA's resolution.

You should also support legislation, recently introduced by Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, which would compel the DNR to complete a legitimate and comprehensive rule-making process by March 2009.

Merilee Meyers is president of the Beltrami County Lakes and Rivers Association and Dann Siems is an aquatic biologist with the Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District.

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