As big docks grow in popularity, DNR takes another look at rules

ST. PAUL -- As super-sized docks become more and more popular among Minnesota's lakehome and cabin owners, often in violation of state regulations, the Department of Natural Resources is considering whether it should just give up and relax those ...

ST. PAUL -- As super-sized docks become more and more popular among Minnesota's lakehome and cabin owners, often in violation of state regulations, the Department of Natural Resources is considering whether it should just give up and relax those rules.

There was a time when folks simply used docks as a place to tie up a boat. But waterfront property owners have been spreading out onto the water, putting grills, picnic tables and even hot tubs on their docks.

"Docks historically have been for getting access to deeper water, but a lot of people are just extending their back yards out over the lake," said Tom Hovey, public waters hydrologist for the DNR.

Docks are supposed to be no wider than 8 feet in any direction under the state's rules, but so many docks are bigger than that that the DNR issued a temporary amnesty this year for hundreds of oversized platforms. Officials said the agency did not want to assume the role of dock police.

The DNR is now reassessing those rules and may relax them for 2008.


At five public meetings last summer and in dozens of written comments, the debate has shaped up as one between people who say their rights as taxpayers should allow them to have wider docks for safety and enjoyment, versus those who say huge docks encroach on public waters and harm aquatic vegetation and fish habitat.

The trend toward oversized docks has been strong in the Brainerd lakes area and on Lake Minnetonka, Hovey said. Some lakeshore owners have built platforms 24 feet wide or larger, he said.

The DNR doesn't have a count on how many oversized docks were on Minnesota's lakes in 2007, Hovey said, but a recent citizens' survey of two lakes just north of Brainerd found that about 10 percent of the docks there were larger than the DNR allows.

Russell Larson lives on Big Sandy Lake, where he has a dock with an 8-foot-by-24-foot sun deck..

"As far as entertaining on the dock, it's a quiet, beautiful place to relax, and absolutely you should be able to do that," he said.

While Larson works for a dock manufacturer, he said his opinions are those of a year-round lakeshore property owner. He said the DNR should focus on the more serious problems of invasive weeds and excessive phosphorus in state waters, not on dock sizes.

Some people build large docks for greater safety for grandchildren or grandparents, or to accommodate larger boats, personal watercraft and boat lifts, or because they have steeply sloping land or no beaches.

But some of their neighbors say docks shouldn't be used as decks, second lawns or patios. Sprawling platforms spoil views, clutter shorelines, shade important fish habitat and infringe on publicly owned waters, they say.


"I have young children, and I know exactly the difference between a need and a want," said Ann Long Voelkner of Bemidji, who owns property on three lakes. "People do not need large docks, although they may want them. If people want to party, let them build a deck on their land, not on our lakes."

Voelkner said dock sizes need to be restricted, not relaxed, especially since the number of docks is increasing with the sales and subdivision of lakeshore property. The problem will worsen, she predicted, as tiered developments are built just behind lakeshore lots with access to lakes.

Large docks actually may be better for the environment in some cases, said Gary Johnson, marketing manager for ShoreMaster Inc., a dock-manufacturing company in Fergus Falls. Otherwise, he said, landowners with marginal beaches might cut down trees, level slopes or make other permanent landscape changes to enjoy their waterfront.

Johnson said docks are temporary structures used for only three or four months out of the year, and he argued that they do little if any harm.

"I understand what people are saying about water being a public resource, but if you look at all the miles of shoreline that we have in Minnesota, it's a lot," he said.

Fisheries experts disagree on the environmental benefits.

The Minnesota chapter of the American Fisheries Society contends that allowing larger docks will put aquatic habitats at unnecessary risk and diminish the natural character of public waters.

As larger docks proliferate, said David Fulton, vice president of the group, lakeshore owners are also adding more boat lifts, canopies, platforms, floats and trampolines.


"Much of the shoreline on many of Minnesota's lakes has turned into a vast array of bright aluminum, decking and vinyl," Fulton wrote in a letter to the DNR. "If current trends continue, few lakes will retain any semblance of a natural shoreline."


Information from: Star Tribune,

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