The Lake St. Croix Beach City Council last fall passed an ordinance amendment allowing owner-occupied in-law apartments within a special St. Croix Riverway district.
The amendment to the city’s zoning regulations in the riverway district added owner-occupied accessory apartments as an allowable use by conditional-use permit in a single-family residential zone.
The ordinance amendment had to be approved by officials from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which is charged with protecting the scenic riverway. DNR officials last year said such units weren’t allowed in the protected “riverway overlay zone,” an area about a quarter-mile out from the river’s edge that has certain building restrictions designed to protect the scenic riverway, under state law.
City officials, however, argued that accessory apartments already exist in the “riverway overlay zone,” and that they should be regulated to a standard set by ordinance.
DNR officials last month said that the city had addressed the agency’s conditions and that the adopted amendment was “substantially compliant with the state rules for the Lower St. Croix Riverway and (was) approved for use.”
On Monday night, just six months after passing the ordinance amendment, the council approved a variance from the owner-occupancy requirement.
Joe and Karen Riley, who own a duplex-like property at 1300 Riviera Ave. S, were granted permission to rent out both accessory units and not live on site. The couple, who have lived in the city for 43 years, recently sold their house and are temporarily living at 1300 Riviera while their new house in St. Mary’s Point is under construction, but they plan to rent out both units again once they move.
The Rileys purchased 1300 Riviera in November 2014 and received permission from city officials to remodel the lower level of the house to convert it to a separate apartment. Among the improvements they made: installing a new septic system and separate HVAC systems gas- and electric-utility meter connections for each unit.
“During or after construction, the city determined that a duplex-type property was not permitted in the … zoning overlay district and requested that the Rileys seek a variance for the property,” city officials wrote in the resolution that was passed Monday night.
City officials later granted a “temporary variance” to the Rileys for the property.
In February, the couple applied for a conditional-use permit for an accessory apartment, as well as a variance from the “owner occupancy” requirements within the accessory apartment code to allow them to rent both units. The city’s planning commission earlier this month recommended that the city council approve both.
“We have done everything the city has asked us to do in regards to this property,” Joe Riley said during the meeting. “We were led to believe that we could build two apartments here. We got a permit from the city of Lake St. Croix Beach to build two apartments here. Now, we’re back here requesting a permanent variance and a CUP for this property. We don’t want any more strings attached. We just want to be done with this. The city has wronged us on this whole thing, and we want you to make it right.”
Council member Dawn Bulera said former city administrator Mitch Berg mistakenly allowed the Rileys in 2015 to turn what was then a single-family house into a “duplex.” She and city council member Cindie Reiter voted against the measure.
“Just because they had a roughed-in something in the basement, it could have been for the rec room,” Bulera said. “If Mitch Berg said you could have a duplex, he was incorrect. … We should have fixed this in 2015.”
Bulera said the majority of residents in the city want accessory units to be owner-occupied because “we feel that owners will take more pride in their properties.” The Riley property, she added, could be rented out as a single-family home.
Council member Noah Bluesky said the city granted the Rileys permission to turn the property into a two-unit dwelling when the building permit was issued in 2015. “They have jumped through all the hoops,” he said. “They’ve done all the paperwork. They’ve paid the fees. They’ve done everything they possibly could to follow the rules when there are people all around them who aren’t following the rules. I don’t see any reason to punish them.”
During the public input part of the meeting, resident Nancy Schneider said the city council would be setting a precedent by granting the variance.
“We are ashamed of the way this is being handled by the city and its council with no regard for what residents wish and what the ordinances state as rule and law,” Schneider wrote in a letter that was read at Monday’s council meeting. “You do not represent this city and its best interests.”
But Bluesky said the Riley variance was a “very unique situation.”
“I think we’re looking at this as a very long-standing history of them dealing with the city on this issue,” he said. “This isn’t them coming out of nowhere, and saying, ‘Well, we really just want a favor here. Can’t you guys help us out?’ It’s not like that. I don’t see it that way.”