River Lost

Along the St. Croix River, the talk is about Rob Hubbard’s proposal to build a 10,000-square-foot house. But that fight is merely one battle in a larger war.

Forty years after it was designated for protection, one of the state’s most scenic rivers faces development pressures at every bend.

Cold, with hard blue skies scratched with clouds, It’s one of the last days to be on the St. Croix River, and Jim Rickard is guiding his Larson 220 Hampton through a no-wake zone near afton.

Only a few boats loiter near the shore on this Saturday, Probably put-ins from the public access, people who don’t own a piece of the river, but belong here nevertheless. They’re the guys Rickard is fighting for.

“How’s it going?” Rickard calls to some fishermen. “Getting any?”

“Couple of small ones.” 

The boat noses into the current, heading upstream. Rickard leans on the throttle and the Larson rears up. Dressed in a Columbia jacket and cargo pants, he puts on some gloves, almost sheepishly. “Might get out one more time,” he says optimistically.

Rickard is vice chair of the St. Croix Valley Interstate Group, part of the Sierra Club. If the title conjures images of a tofu-and-granola guy who lives in a tent and canoes to work, think again. A former director of business processes for United Healthcare, Rickard recently went back to school for a PhD in organizational management. He enjoys the horsepower of his Larson and says that he used to camp more. Now, after a day of boating, he and his partner, Nicole Mettler, usually return to the comfort of their Afton home. 

Mettler, sitting in the boat’s passenger seat, ducks out of a stinging wind, then looks up to see an iconic shape floating in the sky. “Bald eagle,” she says. Above, the bird hangs in the air, wings stretched so large they throw a shadow. The eagle moves from shore to shore, scanning the river for movement, like a sentry.

Rickard serves as something of a sentry himself. Up river, near Lakeland, he kills the engine near a small home barely visible through a stand of trees. It’s the spot where Rob Hubbard, president and CEO of the Hubbard Television Group, is fighting the Department of Natural Resources for the right to build a 10,000-square-foot home on the lip of the bluff. “You can’t see it now,” Rickard says. “That’s a good thing.”

A few miles downstream, Rickard takes the boat around a bend and throttles down. Above the far shore, wooden beams frame another 10,000-square-foot property under construction. The bluff has been terraced with massive rectangular limestone rocks. The home, owned by Butch and Diane Davies, is directly across from River Falls’s Kinnickinnic State Park. “This will be the new view from the park,” says Rickard, pointing up at the house. “None of that was visible before,” he says. “This thing is a tragedy.”

Rickard’s lament is a common refrain among those trying to preserve the historic nature of the St. Croix River. Today, 40 years after it was named a “Wild and Scenic River,” there are those that say the St. Croix is at risk at every bend. From St. Croix Falls, where a large condominium project (next to a scenic overlook built by the city) has been stopped, to Prescott, where a completed condo project sits half empty, the river roils.

In Hudson, for example, a developer has proposed a 45-foot-high condo, hotel, and retail wall between Main Street and the river (“height is money,” says a consultant). In Afton, at least seven lawsuits have been filed over development issues, two of them over a proposal to build condos in the flood plain. 

And while some cities have imposed moratoriums on development—partly to assess the impact on the river, partly because cascading home sales make pending developments risky—other municipalities have enthusiastically encouraged the boom, going so far as to ignore laws governing development along the river. “They approve lots and buildings without holding public meetings, as required,” says Molly Shodeen, a Minnesota DNR hydrologist. “Things have broken down to where there isn’t any respect for the law anymore.”

Today, the river is at the center of a familiar, if impassioned, struggle, between those who want to keep things the way they are, and those who want to bring commerce and convenience closer to home; between those who fear the St. Croix is nearing a tipping point—and those who argue the river has long since passed it. “If the DNR and Sierra Club think they’re going to save the river,” says Butch Davies, who’s building the home Rickard calls a “tragedy,” “they’re 40 years too late.”

Butch and Diane Davie
Photo by David J. Turner

THE ST. CROIX, which wiggles 164 miles from Upper St. Croix Lake and Namekagon Lake to its union with the Mississippi near Prescott, has always been the source of contention. In the mid-1800s, residents fought sawmill owners over logging and control of the river’s flow. Owners of the Nevers Dam would sometimes cut off the flow, leaving the river “at times nearly dry,” according to Saving the River, a book published by the St. Croix River Association, a preservation group. As far back as 1900, development was an issue: Residents wanted “more equitable distribution of enterprise and greater and more prosperous growth for the upper valley,” the Osceola Sun reported.

The battle between property rights and public good began around 1910, when residents of the Twin Cities began to build summer homes along the river near Stillwater. Fifty years later, when Northern States Power tried to construct a coal-burning steam plant with a 785-foot smokestack, the struggle escalated. Proponents touted the promise of lower taxes, but those who lived near the river rebelled. They formed activist groups and held emotional hearings that gained national attention. The St. Croix became the poster child for great rivers that, as one politician said, “died for their country” because of pollution. In response, then-U.S. senators Walter Mondale and Gaylord Nelson drafted the National Scenic Waterway bill. Preservationists were thrilled, but there were those who protested that the legislation gave the government “dictatorial powers over the St. Croix Valley.” Eventually, President Lyndon Johnson backed a  bill that set aside sections of eight rivers across the country for protection. Mondale made sure the St. Croix was one of them.

Today, the St. Croix is governed by a patchwork of rules and regulations overseen by various federal, state, and local entities. The section north of Stillwater is governed—and some of it owned—by the National Park Service. South of Stillwater, the DNR has the final say on development.

“The St. Croix above Taylors Falls should have no structures and should look as pristine as it did 3,000 years ago,” says Mondale, who considers his efforts on behalf of the St. Croix among his most important political accomplishments. “The part above Stillwater, the river banks and view from the river should be unchanged. Below Stillwater would be recreational,” with looser laws that would still strictly limit the view of development from the river.

“It’s been a huge success,” Mondale continues. “And we did it at the right time. There were all kinds of plans to change the river into something you’d see out East, with lots of development along it. The pressure on the river has been tremendous. What we have to worry about now is not some sudden bill that changes how the river is managed, but a death by nicks and cuts: One tree down here, one municipality going too far, one more power line or another bridge.”

 

IN 1927, a St. Paul man named Henry Morgan paid $500 for a three-quarter acre spot on the river. He brought in a few wagonloads of gravel, knocked down some trees, and built a small wooden cabin. It was an early example of the complicated dance a man makes when he buys a piece of land in the midst of pristine nature. When does your nice view become someone else’s blight?

That cabin is not too far from the 824-square-foot home in Lakeland that is the focus of a case submitted to the Minnesota Appeals Court last October, a fight that pits a member of one of the state’s wealthiest and most prominent families, Rob Hubbard, against the DNR.

The Hubbard family’s ties to the St. Croix go back generations. Rob’s father, Stanley Hubbard, lives on the river. So do a sister and a brother. They all played on the beach and swam in the river long before the crowds from the city came.

The house that Rob Hubbard bought, however, doesn’t look like it befits the family’s stature: It’s is a modest rambler with crumbling foundation on the precipice of the river. Yet it boasts views to admire, which is why, in 2006, Hubbard plunked down $1.6 million for it.

From the water, you can barely see the place, situated as it is among three towering pines and a fence of scrub trees. The entrance from the nearest road is a spur that disappears into a tunnel of tall pines.

Hubbard, who would only speak briefly about the issue because of pending litigation—and because he’s irritated at media coverage of the story—said his plans will dramatically improve the property. His  fight, he says, is over a small technical issue of a variance, though “you wouldn’t know that by reading the newspapers.”

Indeed, the skirmish is over a relatively narrow legal point: The current structure doesn’t meet current regulations requiring a 40-foot setback from the shoreline. Hubbard would like to build his new home on part of that footprint, then expand it away from the river. The question at the heart of the case is whether he’s building onto the old structure, or building an entirely new one. If he’s building a new one, it must conform with the setback rules passed since the old structure was built. “The only real legal issue is if he has the right to re-use the footprint of the old house,” says Eric Magnuson, Hubbard’s attorney. The wing of the house at issue “would be a small protrusion” from the rest of the home, all but invisible from the river, built so that Hubbard would “have a better view of the beach where his kids will play.”

The DNR’s Molly Shodeen
Photo by David J. Turner

MOLLY SHODEEN, a soft-spoken woman with a brown curly mop of hair, enters a DNR conference room lugging a folder the size of a toaster oven. The Hubbard file. She sighs as she drops it on the table with a thunk.

Shodeen spreads the Hubbard plan on the table. A chart shows that in 1996, the land and existing home were valued at $276,600. By 2003, the value had risen to $440,000. In 2006, the value was $1.145 million, until Hubbard paid $1.6 million for it.

The current map shows a tiny home at the tip of a long, narrow wooded strip of land. Shodeen places a plastic overlay of Hubbard’s proposed home, with a four-car garage and graceful half-moon patios overlooking the river. “They’ll have to cut down a lot of trees,” she says. “There will be a big hole.”

Even she acknowledges most of those changes are completely legal, or as Hubbard says: “I don’t need permission for 90 percent of what I’m going to do.”

Still, in the fall of 2006, the DNR refused to sign off on the variances granted to Hubbard by the city of Lakeland. Hubbard sought to overturn the ruling, and his attorneys made his case before an administrative law judge during a two-day hearing last March—a proceeding also attended by  lawyers for the city of Lakeland, the DNR, and the Sierra Club. After the DNR’s initial decision was upheld, Hubbard took the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where it currently sits. It’s believed to be the first time someone has fought for river variances all the way to the appeals court. The City of Lakeland has also joined the suit—on Hubbard’s side. “Hubbard thinks this is all because his name is Hubbard,” says Shodeen. “But it’s not. It’s about whether we can maintain the scenic qualities that made this land so valuable to landowners in the first place.”

It’s the sort of disagreement destined to cast Hubbard in the role of cartoon villain, yet nothing involving the river is ever that simple. Ron Carlson, a member of the St. Croix Valley Interstate Group of the Sierra Club, lives near Hubbard. Their wives know each other, and their kids went to school together. He acknowledges that Hubbard “has been a good steward” of the river at his current home, even if he thinks Hubbard should follow the rules when it comes to the new place. Like others, says Carlson, Hubbard knew the property was non-compliant when he bought it.

Hubbard’s lawyer and some Lakeland city officials have criticized the DNR, and particularly Shodeen, for what they perceive as a reluctance to compromise and work with landowners. “The way he and the city council treated her was despicable,” says Rickard. “But when you’re a hero, you’re going to take some shots along the way.”

If preservationists like Rickard consider Shodeen a hero, she is an unlikely one. A relatively faceless state employee for 28 years, she went to college to study teaching and psychology, working her way through school by waitressing. But there were no jobs, so she went back and studied natural resources and began at the DNR as a student-worker inventorying wetlands.

Now a hydrologist who specializes in rivers, Shodeen spends time every fall in a boat, combing the shores of the St. Croix. Armed with a camera, she documents the changes, many of them illegal—some that transpired in the dark of the night—along the river’s banks. “We call it chain-saw disease,” she says with a laugh. “One year I took a bunch of DNR employees out to see it first-hand, and a tree fell right in front of us.

“For the most part,” Shodeen continues, “landowners are doing a pretty good job of taking care of the river. The older people who live on the river know of the threats in the ’50s and ’60s from proposed power plants and condos. Now, however, new people move in and it’s more, ‘I can do what I want and who are you to tell me I can’t.’ It used to be about stewardship. It’s not anymore.”

She recounts some of the gory details of her fights, and the sometimes reluctant compromises the DNR makes, such as the deal struck with the landowner who wanted to supersize his house and garage, and put in visible fountains and a putting green. (“He got the house, but not the putting green,” she says.)

“If we’re going to allow exceptions, we should make the landowner give back something to maintain the quality of the resource,” Shodeen says. “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

“She’s got a tough job,” says Rickard. “She’s fighting people with lots of power and money. At times she probably doesn’t get the support from above; it gets political.”

Asked if she’s more respected or reviled along the St. Croix, Shodeen smiles: “I hear that more people appreciate what I do than it sometimes feels like.”

 

BUTCH DAVIES is a straight-talking guy whose voice rumbles like the trucks that roll out of the gravel pits he owns. He’s a verbal counterpoint to Hubbard’s terse, almost lawyerly demeanor. Davies’s wife, Diane, is a retired teacher who wrote a book about surviving breast cancer. But the gravel-pit owner and the media mogul are squarely on the same side when it comes to the river.

Davies has done something Rob Hubbard has yet to do: win the right to build his dream home. But it wasn’t without a battle.

In January 2006, Davies went before the Denmark Town Board and asked to replace the old two-story house and tavern on property he owned near Hastings. It would be significantly larger than the previous home, with the far corner set at “zero foot setback” from the bluff, the rest angling back away from the river. But it would be no closer to the bluff than the old place, where “you could spit off the deck into the river,” says Davies.

The Davies variance had been approved unanimously. When the DNR found out about it, however, they tried to halt construction. Davies appealed, and the two parties eventually compromised: Davies agreed to move his house back from the bluff 13.3 feet.

Davies says the battle delayed construction for months, and he is not shy when asked how he felt about his experience: “Dealing with the DNR is a joke!” he says. “They make you feel like a jackass, like I’m going to ruin the whole river valley.

“I’m a little bitter,” Davies continues. “My family has paid taxes here since 1854 and probably hasn’t missed a payment. The people who want to run the river don’t even own land on it. I think they are a bunch of imbeciles. Those people should be riding in a horse and buggy, or living with the Amish.”

The Davies property has been in the family for more than 122 years, long before a single condo developer, lawyer, government agent, or politician had an eye on the river. When his forebears arrived, wildlife was everywhere. White pines lined the banks. Even decades later, when Butch Davies helped his dad dig basements for the wealthier people moving out for the country air, it was special. “I’ve lived here all my life, and years ago it was a nice river,” says Davies. “But it’s a piece shit now, as far as I’m concerned.”

Nevertheless, the Davies are building their home above the summer din. “It’s going to be a gorgeous house,” says Davies, proudly. “Nice landscaping. It’s going to look like its been here forever. Besides, 90 percent of the people boating on the river will tell you they like to look at the nice houses on the river.”

Landowners asking for variances from the law must show a hardship, such as terrain that would prohibit building elsewhere. Resident John Kummer wrote to the board in support of Davies: “If you need to find hardship, I say it was created by the passage of the statute in this particular case.”

In other words, a reason to evade the law is the law itself. It’s not an uncommon belief for property owners, who, even if they privately cringe at mammoth homes know those homes are also jacking up their own property values.

But was the 13-foot solution in the Davies’s case a victory for property rights, a win for preservationists, or evidence that the DNR still has only a tenuous grip on the river’s future?

No one agrees.

Davies, who doesn’t have a problem with bigger houses or even condos along the river, suggests that those worried about the river are looking in the wrong direction. “The DNR should be looking the other way”—at visitors to the river, he says. “The boat traffic on weekends is ridiculous.

“My dad said many, many years ago that every person who bought a piece of land out here puts up a fence and gate,” adds Davies. “Everyone wanted to be the last person here. It’s still true today.  But I don’t care what happens; we’re staying. They’ll carry me and my wife out of here in a box.”

Butch Davies love-hate relationship with the St. Croix is emblematic of the river’s struggle. His “gorgeous home” is Rickard’s “tragedy.” His frustration with the hordes that descend on weekends is the hordes opportunity to commune with nature, even if to them that means a party on “Beer Can Island” upstream.

The view from the Davies’ new home, undoubtedly, will be lovely. Ironically, the scenic vista will be thanks to families across the river, like Bud and Audrey Halverson, who donated land to the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust, one of several along the St. Croix, in order to try to keep the river relatively wild and relatively scenic.

To those who worry about the future of the St. Croix, the Halversons are the model of river stewardship, one that may become increasingly rare. “I’m worried about the river, but I don’t think the spirit is gone,” says Mondale. “A lot of people go to the meetings to protect the river. You have a new generation coming along. If you start saying, ‘That’s my watermelon patch and those are my watermelons,’ it’s a mistake.

“It’s a question of whether there is an environmental ethic or whether we’ve given over to the idea of exploitation,” Mondale continues. “Those who despoil the river are not going to benefit by it in the long run. It’s one of the most glorious rivers in the world, and it’s ours.”

Jon Tevlin is a staff writer for the Star Tribune.

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