Your property, their lakefront

There's supposed to be no private lakeshore in Minneapolis, but some Cedar Lake residents have had exclusive uses of parkland for more than 60 years

On June 15, 1938, the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners issued a "temporary permit" to several homeowners on Cedar Lake, allowing their various "plantings and structures" to encroach on park-owned property next to the lake.

Today, that stretch of Cedar Lake -- including 16 homes between Cedar's South Beach and the Lake of the Isles Channel -- still has private encroachments, and it is the only area in the city where homeowners have what amounts to lakefront property.

The early leaders of the Minneapolis park system preserved lakeshore for public use; their foresight led to the system of walking and biking paths residents enjoy today.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board owns the land that encircles Cedar Lake, including the southeast corner where its property narrows in spots. Today's park leaders say it would be difficult for them to install a path there because of the width.

Several people interviewed said homeowners would strongly object to a change in the status quo, like the addition of a path. A few years ago, homeowners succeeded in diverting Park Board plans to do native plant restoration along the shore in front of their homes.

"We feel very fortunate to have this beautiful lake. We do everything we can to preserve it," said Gloria Sewell, who moved into her Park Lane home less than a year ago. "It is one of the wonderful things about this street that is so unique -- that one street has direct access to the lake.

"Maybe we're being selfish to say we don't want it to change, but it's the truth," she said.

Encroaching

The Park Board land along this stretch of Cedar Lake ranges in width from 20 feet to more than 80 feet, according to a map provided by the Park Board.

Those widths shrink when the water level rises, said Cliff Swenson, a park planner. The map was based on 1996 measurements, before 1997's flooding.

"It may be difficult, if not impossible, to get a trail in there without an easement" from the private property owners, Swenson said, because of state and Minnehaha Creek Watershed District shorefront setback requirements.

Park Board President Bob Fine said technically, people are allowed to walk on the property. However, "we just don't have paths there."

Even if a path were installed, walkers would hit a dead end at the Lake of the Isles channel unless a bridge were built.

Those who try to walk the shoreline pass gardens and retaining walls, detouring into what are, by all appearances, people's back yards. "You feel like you are intruding," Fine said.

One property owner, who asked his name not be used, said he used to have a dock. "I thought there was an informal agreement," he said. "If you don't build a permanent structure, they (staff) won't bother you."

As part of the informal agreement, homeowners maintained park property, he said, adding, "for them to get a mower in here would be a big deal."

The 1938 board action that allowed property owners to encroach on park land imposed a number of conditions:

  • Limited encroachments to those in place at the time. "No additional structures or plantings are to be installed without the written consent of the Board of Park Commissioners," it said.

  • Guaranteed public access. Encroachments "shall be subject to the right of the public to use the same and does not confer upon permittee any exclusive right to use of said land."

  • The Park Board can reclaim the land "at the will and discretion of the Board by its furnishing 30 days' written notice."

    Wild and natural

    Keith Prussing, president of the Cedar Lake Park Association, a volunteer group that works to improve green space, trails and habitat around the lake, said he would like to see the publicly owned areas more in keeping with the rest of Cedar Lake.

    "We think all park land belongs to the people," he said. "We would support the Park Board in asserting its rights."

    That does not mean he would support a walking path all around the lake, Prussing said.

    "Part of what helps maintain Cedar Lake Park in general as a wild and natural thing is that it is not so easy to access," he said. "If you built something like that, you'd really change the access patterns. You would have more of the 'Go-around-the-lake' culture that you have at the other lakes. Because that exists at the other lakes, we think it is not necessary to exist at Cedar Lake."

    He would like to see more native plantings along that stretch of the lake, however. "You get a much richer ecosystem than just the lawns," he said.

    Park planner Swenson said that a few years ago, the Park Board considered a native plant restoration project along the east shore of Cedar Lake, including shoreline stabilization.

    Residents "were quite concerned our changes would necessitate them removing some of their encroachments," he said.

    The Park Board moved the project elsewhere on the lake.

    Vivian Mason, the Park Board member who represents the area, said restoration took place in "a more appropriate spot," with significant erosion.

    "They have not had (erosion) where the house are," Mason said. "I think some of the houses actually put in retaining walls at their own expense to be sure the land wouldn't be eroded."

    Wowie, zowie

    Fine said the issue of the private use of parkland on the southeast shore of Cedar Lake had not surfaced during his four-plus years on the board.

    "I always wondered why for this one lake in the city, you couldn't go all the way around it," he said. "We have the ability to use part of the lake, but it's difficult. How do you change it after it has been that way for so long?"

    Mason said she was not concerned that parkland along southeast Cedar Lake lacked better public access.

    "I think it is getting public access, because people can go by canoe," she said. "You actually can walk around almost all of the lake, but there are huge cost issues if you thought about ever trying to put in a path. Or if you ever thought about the safety issues that would be needed to put in lighting."

    (Mason lives north of the channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. Her land abuts a sliver of channel parkland. She has tried to avoid discussions about the channel to avoid the impression she was seeking any privileges, she said.)

    Annie Young, an at-large Park Board Commissioner, said she was unaware of the Cedar Lake issue. "Wowie, zowie," she said. "This is all news to me. It gives me food for thought."

    Paying taxes

    Sewell and Mason said homeowners pay for the privilege of living next to the lake through high property taxes.

    The homes along this stretch of Cedar Lake are valued at between $450,000 and $1.4 million, according to the Hennepin County Assessor's Office website. The tax bills range from $6,459 to $22,589.

    (One property, 28 Park Lane, pays no property taxes, according to the website. The owner of record is "Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth." The taxpayer's name is listed as "Canadian Consulate.")

    City Assessor Scott Renne said the homeowners are effectively paying taxes for the use of the land, even though they don't own it. The land is assessed based on market value, not square footage.

    "The amenity of having a lakeshore home -- they are paying for that," he said. "The generic seller and generic buyer are not going to be agonizing or analyzing a strip of land that is in Park Board ownership."

    Lake master plan

    What changes -- if any -- that might take place along Cedar's southeast shore could be addressed when the lake goes through a master planning process similar to other lakes in the Chain of Lakes.

    Cedar Lake should get state planning money in the next five years, Swenson said.