In 2016, our neighbors, my wife and I bought a property with 40' of shoreline on Lake Minnetonka. The property was previously tax forfeited to the County. We and others in the neighborhood have deeded access rights to the lake via the property. The city agreed to facilitate the sale from the County and in return we agreed to preserve lake access for easement holders. Prior to contacting the city, we had contacted the other property easement holders that were known to us and none of them expressed interest in purchasing the lot with us.
Once we acquired the property, we carefully reviewed the code and consulted real estate attorneys. Our research and plain reading of the code indicated that the city’s dock restrictions did not apply to seasonal docks. The code prohibited only permanent and floating docks. So we installed a seasonal dock in April 2017. One month following the installation, we received a notice of violation stating that there were complaints about the dock and that it violated the zoning code. We appealed on the basis that the code only applied to permanent and floating docks. The city ultimately agreed with us because on July 12, 2017, the 60th day following our appeal, it then withdrew the citation and amended the code to eliminate the limiting modifiers (“permanent” and “floating”).
When we installed our dock the following year, the city cited us based on the expanded dock restrictions of the amended code. We then renewed our appeal because we were grandfathered under the prior code language and our appeal was not heard the first time. We had filed a valid appeal, meeting all the requirements in the prior year. Our appeal was denied without even a hearing.
There was no opportunity for discussion or compromise. No opportunity for mediation. Pubic hearings were scheduled and then cancelled. And we were denied our due process on our appeal. At one point, then council member Labadie explained to me that we were “red-flagged” and that city council members and other city officials were not permitted to speak with us until the city got its way. The city essentially ostracized our families for over five years. This experience is exceptionally disappointing because our mayor received a variance to excuse her own dock violations - ignoring nine letters from local residents in opposition to her variance - while the city was litigating against us. In fact, at one point we noted to the city that ours was one of the few code compliant docks in the vicinity. Our protests fell on deaf ears.
After canceling hearings and denying to hear our appeal, the city charged us criminally and initiated civil litigation for violating the amended code. The District Court dismissed the case for lack of probable cause because the city failed to approve our deny our appeal within 60-dyas per state statute. The city appealed and the Appeals Court unanimously affirmed the District Court's decision. In a closed-door meeting, the city council then decided to file a petition for review with the Minnesota State Supreme Court and oral arguments were held on Monday, September 8, 2020.
On December 30, 2020, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the rulings of the lower courts on the basis that an appeal does not qualify as a request under Minnesota Statute Section15-99 rule - a statute that requires cities to respond within 60 days of a request related to zoning. In yet another closed session following a regular city council meeting, the Shorewood city council decided to drop the criminal charges to proceed with civil litigation. Given the district Judge’s prior dismissal, presumably the council recognized that proceeding with the criminal prosecution would ultimately fail based on our other arguments (e.g., we are grandfathered under the prior code).
On July 9, 2021, District Judge Lois Conroy (a former Minneapolis prosecuting attorney), granted an injunction against our dock in favor of the city. We then filed an appeal on the basis that Judge Conroy's legal interpretations such as grandfather rights and other key areas were flawed and that the judge made up her own facts such as characterizing our seasonal dock as a permanent dock to support her results-based decision to rule in favor of the city. The Minnesota Court of Appeals oral argument was heard on December 14, 2021.
On March 14, 2022, the Court of Appeals issued its unanimous opinion that reversed and remanded the District Court's ruling in our favor. The ruling states "The timing of the 2017 amendments suggests that the city understood that the 2006 code* was not as restrictive as the city now contends it to have been."
*This is the code that was in effect at the time we initially installed the dock in 2017.
I do not want any more Shorewood families to encounter our city's adversarial, heavy-handed approach to resolving disputes with residents. Moving forward, the city should understand and abide by its own code and it should not punish residents who abide by the code as written by the city. Additionally the city should work more diligently to ensure its zoning code is clear and unambiguous and aligns with the city's policies.
After the City withdrew its citation in response to our appeal, it amended the code to remove the qualifiers "permanent" and "floating" to prohibit all docks. The next year, the city cited us under the new "clarified" code that expanded dock restrictions.
The city's code revisions are shown in track changes.
Over our five year journey, the facts, the law and perseverance prevailed over politics and false narratives. I've learned a lot about our legal system. It's unpredictable - but we are grateful it works.
I aim to put my knowledge of the system to work so that no other residents will encounter the city's adversarial, heavy-handed, litigious behavior. I believe cities should be required to pursue conflict resolution and hold public hearings before prosecuting residents.