Minnesota’s shoreland rules getting another look

By Janet Kubat Willette

ROCHESTER, Minn. — About 75 people attended a public meeting Feb. 4 designed to share information about Minnesota’s shoreland rules.

Minnesota lawmakers adopted a Shoreland Management Act in 1969 and the rules were last revised in 1989, said Peder Otterson, program manager for the shoreland management program in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Waters Division. In 2007, the Legislature directed the DNR to review the rules and Otterson has been working on the project since January 2008.

In general, the rules require a 50 foot buffer from the ordinary high water level to row-crop production in agricultural use areas. The buffer area must be in permanent vegetation.


The size of the buffer was debated at the afternoon meeting in Rochester. Studies have consistently found that the effectiveness of buffers declines after 50 feet, Otterson said, and the buffer can be easily breached if too narrow.

"You heard it here, some people are saying it should be more," he said.

"The 50 foot buffer is a good start," said Ross Hoffmann, water quality project coordinator for the Cannon River Watershed Partnership. "We’re not going to solve all our problems with just a buffer."

Buffer size is a balancing act between farmers who earn their living off the crops they harvest and the public benefit of improved water quality from a buffer, Hoffmann said.

Different counties have tried various approaches to getting buffers on the landscape.

Goodhue and Fillmore counties have followed a pattern set forth by Grant County, where support for the program is built from the bottom up.

The Grant County program grew out of discussions between the county’s planning and zoning department and the Soil and Water Conservation District, Otterson said. The 50 foot buffer law was on the books, but wasn’t enforced, he said. Planning and zoning and the SWCD partnered with township boards to educate landowners about the law and the benefits of buffers. Thousands of acres were enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program as a result of the grassroots effort, he said.

Goodhue County started its buffer initiative in 2006. The county board signed on to support the SWCD’s efforts to promote their ordinance, said Beau Kennedy, Goodhue County SWCD water planner. He is going township by township to meet with township leaders and ask for their support.


In the first township, the meeting didn’t go well, Kennedy said. In the second township, the meeting went better and landowners in that township have taken steps to come into compliance. For some, creating the buffer meant moving fences, he said. The SWCD applied for and received a Clean Water Legacy grant to provide free seed to landowners who want to plant permanent cover in the 50 foot buffer.

The DNR allows grazing or haying of the buffer, Otterson said, as long as permanent vegetation is maintained. However, producers who enroll the land in conservation programs have to abide by those regulations.

In Fillmore County, a letter signed by the county board chairman and the Soil and Water Conservation District chairman was mailed to 284 landowners between October and January, said Donna Rasmussen, district administrator. Of the responses received, 21 people indicated they weren’t interested, five signed up for a conservation program to install a buffer and four expressed interest in a conservation program.

The letters will be followed with phone calls, Rasmussen said. Sometimes it takes two to three years for someone to respond to a letter, she added.

Dodge County is taking a different approach. Compliance officer Melissa DeVetter did a field investigation of sites in April 2007 and found 198 violations in the county. All violators were mailed a letter and told to come into compliance with the county ordinance.

So far, 63 landowners have come into compliance, 76 agreed to come into compliance and about 60 ignored the letter and will be contacted again. Violations will be treated as a misdemeanor, DeVetter said.

"We’re not concerned how they come into compliance," she said, as long as they meet the 50 foot ordinance.

Hoffmann is spreading the word about the 50 foot requirement and he’s visited with county boards from Waseca to Winona. The response has been varied, he said. Every area is unique for buffers.


Otterson conducted another public forum in Redwood Falls on Feb. 9. He will continue gathering input on the shoreland rule through at least June. Rule revisions may to go into effect as soon as December.

Otterson can be reached at

For more information on the shoreland rules project, visit

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