A dock installed by two Shorewood families on their sliver of Lake Minnetonka shoreline has launched a battle with the city that’s now gone to the state’s highest court — and even prompted one of the defendants to run for mayor.
After the city sent out a violation notice and ordered removal of their dock, saying the 40-foot lakefront was too small for any kind of structure, joint property owners Guy and Kristine Sanschagrin and Jeff and Linda Cameron countered that city code addresses only permanent and floating docks, not seasonal docks that are removed for winter.
“That’s why we put a seasonal dock in,” Guy Sanschagrin said.
After the Shorewood City Council amended the ordinance to forbid all docks on empty lots, the city charged the couples with a misdemeanor. The families appealed and the district court dismissed the case because, it said, the city didn’t respond to the appeal within 60 days as required by state statute. The Court of Appeals agreed.
Shorewood then brought the case to the state Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments last week. The League of Minnesota Cities weighed in, taking the city’s side and saying the case’s outcome will affect future zoning decisions across the state. A decision is expected by early December.
Guy Sanschagrin was so frustrated by what he called the city’s lack of transparency and unresponsiveness to residents that he decided to run for mayor of Shorewood. His website says he wants the city to “treat all citizens equally, fairly and respectfully,” preserve its natural habitat and encourage collaboration with other cities and nonprofits.
Mayor Scott Zerby isn’t running for re-election, so Sanschagrin is up against City Council Member Jennifer Labadie, who is campaigning to improve parks and trails along with aging roads and infrastructure. She declined to comment on the case until the court issues its ruling.
Zerby disputed Sanschagrin’s claims and gave several examples of ways he has included residents in government. “I’ve prided myself on full transparency and representing the residents in our city,” he said.
As for the issue at hand, he said: “I personally can’t imagine if every little strip of land [had the] ability to have a dock.”
While the parties await the court’s decision, a wooden dock still stands on the property along with a metal bench, a birdhouse and piles of brush.
The Sanschagrins and Camerons bought the 2,600-square-foot parcel of land near their homes in 2016 after a previous owner failed to pay taxes on it. They split the $52,000 cost.
The families already had deeded access rights to the property, as did several other land owners nearby, meaning they could use it even though they didn’t own it. They decided to buy it because they worried a new buyer might find a legal way to end their access rights.
“Our thought was … we could protect it for other easement owners,” Jeff Cameron said. A sailor, he said that being on the lake “is a real stress reliever and kind of resets your mind.”
“We wanted to use it as much as possible,” Sanschagrin said of their shoreline.
They consulted a land-use attorney, who gave them the go-ahead, and installed a dock in April 2017. A month later they got a violation notice after a neighbor complained, Zerby said.
The families responded that the dock was seasonal, not permanent or floating, which city code didn’t allow. The code didn’t mention seasonal docks.
A couple of months later, the City Council withdrew its citation and amended its dock ordinance, removing references to types of docks and effectively banning any dock on an empty lot. Zerby said it simply clarified what the ordinance had always intended. “A dock, to me, is a dock,” he said.
In spring 2018, the families got a letter from the city ordering them to remove the dock, which sat unassembled on the property. They wrote a letter of appeal, saying the deck complied with city code, and then installed it. They received another citation from the city and the families responded again. City officials didn’t reply, Zerby said, because they had already done so.
In September 2018 the Sanschagrins and Camerons were charged with a misdemeanor, kicking off the court battle.
“They’re very adversarial,” Cameron said of city officials. “I … expected we could have a dialogue, but they went into full assault mode.”
Zerby referred to a city memo in 2016 that noted the lot was “far too small to build on” and “cannot have a dock without a house on the lot,” but Sanschagrin and Cameron said they never saw that memo.
The city has spent $53,200 on the case, which Zerby said was “worth it to defend other residents and make sure we apply our zoning ordinance consistent.” Sanschagrin said their legal costs are nearing $30,000 but added they are resolved to see the case through.
Dave Polley, who has had deeded access to what is now Sanschagrin and Cameron’s lakefront parcel since he moved nearby in 1977, believes the dock should be allowed.
“There’s no harm being done down there,” Polley said. “This is a fool’s errand by the city.”