As criminal matters go, it’s not exactly larceny, grand theft auto or assault-battery– –but ‘dock wars’ can cause lake neighborhood wounds that are slow to heal
In the scheme of things in law enforcement; “misplacement” of docks, lifts, boats and water toys on area lakes isn’t exactly a matter of criminal malfeasance; or high crimes and misdemeanors. But when it comes to keeping neighborhood peace along peculiar shorelines and Mother Nature’s natural curvatures–the Otter Tail “dock ordinance” is aimed at maintaining the scenic–and social–tranquility in a county of 1,000 lakes.
Approved in 2016 by the Otter Tail County Board, the main thrust was to give authorities something on the books to mediate “dock disputes.”
Since enacted, there have been a few minor neighbor-to-neighbor “dock skirmishes.” But the ordinance hadn’t undergone a serious challenge, said Otter Tail Chief Deputy Barry Fitzgibbons.
Deputies have visited a bay on the west side of Franklin–several times.
The dock and lift placements, and related shoreline issues, involve about four lots and property owners, said Fitzgibbons.
“With this piece of shoreline, it’s really challenging,” said Fitzgibbons, adding that the bay and the trajectory from lot line into the water makes it difficult to place the equipment without dissatisfying somebody along the line. It is something of a “domino effect” with the bay and the curvature of the shoreline.
“We’ve been working to weigh all the parties involved. Hopefully we’ll be coming up with a resolution soon,” he added. Some of the property owners were upset, “but it hasn’t escalated yet.”
That’s a good thing. Dock disputes are potentially more contentious than meets the eye–and can damage neighborhood relations indefinitely.
An unusual situation on Pelican lake two summers ago, where a dock was actually installed like a blockade in front of a neighbor’s dock, was in large part the single incident that prompted the county-wide ordinance.
Elsewhere in Minnesota, there was at least one neighborhood dock dispute that resulted in assault charges in recent years.
Regarding the Franklin Lake situation, nobody’s publicly naming names or identifying specific properties at this point–including the Pelican Rapids Press. But suffice it to say that even the sheriff’s department was reluctant to take the case much further without guidance from the Otter Tail County attorney’s office.
“We’re not enforcing the situation at this point, we sent to the county attorney for more of a finding,” said Fitzgibbons. “We’re waiting for a clarification, which we should be getting any day from the county attorney.”
The chief deputy wants to send the message to property owners that the full language of the dock ordinance can be viewed at the Otter Tail website. Further, that folks should call before the situation gets weird. “We’ll try to work through disputes,” said Fitzgibbons.
Part of the wording in the ordinance is as follows:
“A dock must be set back a sufficient distance from a riparian zone to ensure that any attached or adjacent boat lift or moored dock does not encroach on the riparian zone of an adjacent property.”
At the time the ordinance language was being forged, Otter Tail County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who serves the Pelican Rapids-Pelican Lake area, had this to say:
“What we’re trying to say, in simple terms, is keep your stuff in front of your place..We’re trying to verbalize the ordinance, and put into writing what most people would recognize as common sense as to where a dock should be located,” said Johnson in 2015. “But that is not quite as easily said and done in writing.”
Otter Tail County Land and Resource Management Director Bill Kalar summed it up this way as the dock ordinance was nearing official approval:
“The dock and riparian use ordinance, something new for county government, is for the purpose of controlling the placement of structures in water to avoid disputes between neighbors.”
So far, the law has helped resolve some minor issues on area lakes. It remains to be seen whether the latest test will ultimately encourage neighbors to go along to get along–along the shores of Franklin Lake.