By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Most of the posts here on IAC inform readers about issues and drama occurring in communities governed by mandatory homeowners’ associations.
But readers also need to know about voluntary HOAs, and the various purposes they serve. While some voluntary HOAs, such as Forest Hill HOA in Cleveland, exist primarily to uphold architectural standards and historical integrity in their neighborhood, other voluntary HOAs are organized purely for civic or social purposes.
The White Bear Lake Homeowners’ Association is one example. It’s primary mission is to preserve White Bear Lake for generations to come.
NOTE: Comparing a mandatory to a voluntary HOA is like comparing apples to oranges. Two entirely different animals.
Of course, that adds to the confusion of housing consumers, especially those who have never lived under the rule of a mandatory HOA, or who have never been a member of a voluntary homeowers’ group.
Today’s post is meant to illustrate that voluntary HOAs can serve a useful purpose, one that is very different from the typical “modern” mandatory HOA.
Homeowners trying to save their lake
White Bear Lake HOA (WBLHOA) was formed in response to fluctuating water levels in the community’s namesake: White Bear Lake, located about 19 miles northwest of Minneapolis. The city of White Bear Lake is a popular tourist destination, offering small town charm (population less than 24,000) and recreation on the lake. Fishing, boating, and jet skiing are popular activities. Golfing, state parks, shopping, and dining areas also surround the lake.
In other words, White Bear Lake is the centerpiece and lifeblood of the small City.
Needless to say, when residents of White Bear Lake noticed a significant drop in the water level of the lake, they became concerned. At first, the drop in water level was written off as the effect of prolonged drought. But as the problem persisted over many years, homeowners near the lake wanted to determine what was causing their precious lake to lose up to 25% of its water volume, and why it never seemed to fully recover with seasonal rains.
The WBLHOA began working alongside the White Bear Lake Restoration Association (WBLRA), a group of business owners and community activists that has been seeking solutions to the problem of their disappearing lake for many years.
Homeowners and restoration group members say that expert research from hydrologists has pinpointed the cause of dropping water levels at White Bear Lake: over-pumping of aquifers that feed the lake. They say that communities within a 5 mile radius of the lake are literally sucking the water out of White Bear Lake, using much of it to irrigate their lawns and landscapes.
Both groups believe that, because the state agency has been in the habit of issuing an excessive number of water use permits to nearby communities, DNR has failed to uphold its duty to protect the lakeside community’s most precious resource — water.
A quick search on Zillow.com confirms that, in the past two decades, quite a few new homes have been built within 5 miles of White Bear Lake. Many of those homes are likely to be part of mandatory association-governed communities, most of which have covenants and restrictions requiring homeowners to maintain lush, green landscapes. That’s in addition to water needed for ordinary human consumption.
The east side of the lake is dominated by luxurious estate homes surrounding Dellwood Golf and Country Club. That kind of land use, of course, creates a very high demand for irrigation.
Obviously, WMLHOA is not concerned at all with aesthetic restrictions and landscape standards to maintain lush greenery. Instead, the voluntary homeowners’ group seeks to preserve ground water aquifers and White Bear Lake.
Clearly, a stark contrast exists between a “keeping up property values with CC&Rs” HOA, and a “conserve water and save our lake for future generations” HOA.
Legal victory leads to legislation
Five years ago, WBLRA obtained the services of a pro bono attorney, and sued the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The HOA ultimately intervened in that lawsuit.
According to several reports (referenced below), when the lengthy lawsuit finally reached Ramsey County Judge Margaret Marrinan’s bench earlier this year, she agreed with WBLRA and WBLHOA. Marrinan ordered that communities within a 5-mile radius of White Bear Lake must implement strict water conservation standards.
The Judge’s ruling was highly controversial, because, in order to comply with the order, 11 nearby municipalities would have to severely cut back on withdrawal of water from underground aquifers. Of course, nonessential irrigation would have to be limited, making it difficult to maintain lush, green lawns and shrubs. But beyond that, water use restrictions would also requite towns to invest in expensive rebuilds of their respective water utility supply systems, tapping into surface water from rivers, rather than aquifers that continue to drain White Bear Lake.
Shortly after news of the court ruling spread, residents of towns within the proposed conservation area complained to their state Representatives and Senators. That ultimately led the Legislature to propose and pass two similar bills that would put a hold on the Judge’s conservation order. Governor Mark Dayton’s signature sealed the deal by sigining the House bill, enacting a new state law that bans DNR from enforcing the controversial court order mandating water conservation, pending the outcome of appeals of Judge Marranin’s ruling.
So, to summarize:
DNR, a state environmental protection agency, issued water use permits allowing substantial withdrawals of water from underground aquifers.
Lake levels of White Bear Lake dropped, reportedly by 25%, when nearby residents consumed increasing quantities of water from the aquifer. Normal weather patterns do not provide enough rain to replenish the aquifer or the lake. Residents are using water faster than it can be replaced by rain water alone.
Motivated to save the lake, WBLRA and WBLHOA team up to seek solutions to the problem. They sue DNR and win. A County Judge rules that communities within 5 miles of White Bear Lake must begin to restrict water usage from the underground aquifer, and make plans to draw their water supply from surface water of rivers.
Residents of affected communities contact their state Legislators to complain, and, ultimately a new law is enacted that prevents DNR from enforcing the Judge’s order.
So…in essence, the actions of a state government agency created the problem of a shrinking White Bear Lake, and now the actions of state Legislators and the Governor directly contradict a Judge’s ruling.
Some critics say the Judge’s order amounts to legislating from the bench. Others accuse the Legislature of enabling cities to ignore a court order.
Municipalities surrounding White Bear Lake plan to appeal the DNR amendments ordered by Judge Marranin. And, in the meantime, they don’t intend to take any steps to conserve water.
Bottom line: there’s still no end to the controversy surrounding White Bear Lake.
Blasting Minnesota DNR, judge stands by her White Bear Lake ruling (Star Tribune, March 30, 2018)
Mission remains to restore lake; proponents say legislation shortsighted (White Bear Press, April 11, 2018)
Lawmakers say ignore judge’s ruling on protecting White Bear Lake’s water level (Twin Cities Pioneer Press, May 9, 2018)
Lawmakers tell everyone to ignore judge in White Bear Lake case. Can they do that? (Twin Cities Pioneer Press, May 14, 2018)
New law bars DNR from enforcing judge’s order in lake lawsuit (White Bear Press, May 30, 2018)
The lake or the lawn? Watering ban hangs over heads of White Bear Lake neighbors (Twin Cities Pioneer Press, June 3, 2018)