A fight over a seasonal dock on Lake Minnetonka will be decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court in the coming weeks.
The years-long legal battle is between the City of Shorewood and four residents – Guy Gerald Sanschagrin, Kristine Knudson Sanschagrin, Jeffery Lowell Cameron and Linda Kay Cameron – who together bought a small, undeveloped lot about five houses down from their respective homes that they use to access the lake.
Since installing the dock in 2017, the families have been fighting with the city about whether their seasonal dock violates city code. And now, after a few appeals and more than $50,000 in expenses paid by the city, the case is in the hands of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
"At this point, it's more like the principle of the thing," Guy Sanschargrin told BMTN on Wednesday when asked why they keep fighting this. "It's like, if I allow a city to do what they're doing – bullying tactics, changing the rules and retroactively applying them – I feel like we're losing our liberties. We're losing our rights - they're taking away our rights from us."
However, Shorewood Mayor Scott Zerby told BMTN if the Sanschargrins and Camerons had raised concerns about the city's zoning rules before buying the property, they could have avoided all of this.
According to court documents, in 2016, the Sanschargrins and Camerons bought a tax-forfeited property from Hennepin County via the City of Shorewood. The families had deeded access to Lake Minnetonka via the property, so they wanted to keep their lake access. To do so, the city acquired the property from the county, and the families paid the city more than $50,000, covering the back taxes on the property, to own the land.
Then, in April 2017, the Sanschargrins and Camerons installed a dock on the property. Guy Sanschargrin said they read the city's code and consulted with attorneys before installing seasonal dock, noting at that time the rules stated only "permanent" and "floating" docks were not allowed - neither of which described their dock.
But soon after, on May 11, 2017, the city issued a notice to the residents that their dock violated city code because the property didn't have a dwelling and they didn't live on the property, court documents show. They were ordered to remove the dock, but they were allowed to appeal the notice.
The Sanschagrins and Camerons filed a written appeal to the Shorewood City Council, saying city code didn't apply to their situation because the code only deals with "permanent" and "floating" docks, court documents state. The appeal was referred to the city's planning commission and the city withdrew its notice on July 12, 2017 - 59 days after the Sanschagrins and Camerons filed their appeal, Guy Sanschagrin said.
Two months after receiving the families' appeal, the City of Shorewood amended city code by removing references to "permanent" and "floating" docks, which then prohibited any dock from being built on land in a residential area unless the property has a principal dwelling, according to court documents.
In May 2018, the Sanschagrins and Camerons installed their dock again, and the city notified them that it violated city ordinances and had to be removed. The Sanschagrins and Camerons appealed, arguing the dock was a permitted non-conforming use that was in place before the ordinance was amended in 2017.
The City of Shorewood declined to hear their appeal, citing untimeliness, and filed criminal misdemeanor charges against the Sanschagrins and Camerons for violating the ordinance that was recently amended, court documents state.
The Sanschagrins and Camerons moved to dismiss the charges, saying the city failed to deny their 2017 appeal within 60 days, which under state law means the dock's use is approved. A district court granted the families' motion to dismiss, agreeing that the city didn't respond to their appeal, and thus it approved the dock, ruling that the city's later ordinance amendment had no impact on its earlier approval of the dock.
The city appealed the district court's decision, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the decision. During oral arguments, one of the judges compared the city's actions when it withdrew the citation then changed city code and cited them under the new code as sounding "a bit like bait and switch."
"Shorewood did not deny respondents’ request. It merely withdrew its notice of violation, 60 days after respondents’ letter of appeal. Its failure to deny the request within 60 days resulted in its approval of the dock as a matter of law ...
"In sum, because section 15.99 [of state law] applies to respondents’ letter of appeal and because Shorewood failed to deny respondents’ request within 60 days, Shorewood approved respondents’ dock, and the district court appropriately dismissed the charges for lack of probable cause."
Case heads to the Supreme Court
The city then petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court, which heard arguments on the case on Tuesday.
Shorewood City Administrator Greg Lerud told BMTN it is the city's practice not to comment on ongoing litigation, "and we look forward to the Supreme Court’s decision."
Meanwhile, in a statement to BMTN, Shorewood Mayor Scott Zerby said:
“There was ample opportunity prior to the purchase of the lot for Mr. Sanschagrin and the other buyers to raise any concerns with the zoning code. It was only after he acquired the property from the City that he disagreed with the dock restrictions and installed a dock anyway.
"Had Mr. Sanschagrin’s disagreement with the restriction been raised by him prior to acquiring the property, this issue would not have arisen, and the City would not have been obligated to enforce its zoning code.
“The City has paid $53,200 in fees and costs in this enforcement proceeding. The City would far prefer to spend public tax dollars on new playground or public works equipment, but we have an obligation and a duty to apply the rules of the zoning code impartially.
“The issue is now before the Minnesota Supreme Court and we await their decision."
The Minnesota Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on the case by mid to late October, Guy Sanschagrin told BMTN.
If the court rules in their favor, Sanschagrin says it would be "a big win for property owners because it'll keep the cities accountable to being responsive to following the rules - their own rules."
"I think it's reasonable to require a city to respond to an appeal within 60 days. It seems reasonable to me, and it seems like that should be the law of the land," he added.
This case, and other land-use issues like it between cities on Lake Minnetonka and property owners, has inspired local residents to take action. They formed a group that has occasionally met in person (at least before the COVID-19 pandemic) and discusses local government overreach issues in a private Facebook group.
Meanwhile, Guy Sanschagrin's legal battle inspired him to run for mayor of Shorewood this November, saying if it was just him encountering these issues he would focus on his battle.
"But I see a lot of pain throughout the city of other people who have the same complaints," he told BMTN. "They say they'll sit down with city officials and they'll read what the code actually says in writing and the city officials say 'Nope, that's not what it says' and there's no recourse or the recourse is this long protruded process that's painful to go through and costly."
He said it seems like city officials "like to tell landowners 'No, you can't do that.'"
"I have heard first-hand from other Shorewood citizens, and I myself have experienced, how the Shorewood City government has engaged in a mix of overt actions and enforcement against some citizens and laissez-faire towards others. It is important for government to treat all citizens fairly, equally and respectfully. Unfair and unequal treatment leads to unhealthy community disenfranchisement and resentment. Moreover, the City should understand and abide by its contracts, the City code and Minnesota State law. I believe most Shorewood residents would agree that aggressive legal actions and threats against neighboring cities and our citizens should be a method of last resort. Such actions waste taxpayer money and harm relationships.