Variance request turns into big issue on Lake Ocheda

WORTHINGTON -- After two meetings, more than four hours of discussion and two failed motions, the Nobles County Board of Adjustment came to a 4-1 agreement Wednesday night to allow Joe and Rita Vander Kooi of rural Worthington to build a new home...

WORTHINGTON -- After two meetings, more than four hours of discussion and two failed motions, the Nobles County Board of Adjustment came to a 4-1 agreement Wednesday night to allow Joe and Rita Vander Kooi of rural Worthington to build a new home on the west basin of Lake Ocheda and build a deck that infringes no more than 16 feet over the 150-foot setback.

The Vander Koois met first with the board a month ago to present plans for building a home on a hillside overlooking the lake in Section 10 of Bigelow Township. At that time, they requested encroaching on setback by nearly one-third, putting the western-most point of their house 45 feet closer to the lake.

A motion to deny the variance was initially made at the first meeting, but then action was tabled to allow the Vander Koois to explain their reasons for the request on site at 29997 Paul Ave.

On Wednesday, the board met with the family and one neighbor on site to see where the 150-foot setback line was in relation to where the Vander Koois wanted to build their home.

In any situation in which a landowner requests a variance to required setbacks, the burden of proof is on him to show why denial of the variance would be a hardship.


In the case of the Vander Koois, who want to build their home into the hillside, shifting the home back the required 150 feet would require them to bring in a lot more fill material to be able to construct a home and attached garage. They also said it wouldn't provide the best view of the lake.

It was up to the board of adjustment to decide if those were valid enough reasons to authorize a variance.

Compounding the request were more than half a dozen letters received by Nobles County Environmental Services regarding the Vander Kooi's variance application. The majority of them were from neighbors concerned the home, if built closer to the lake, would infringe on the wildlife corridor that exists around Lake Ocheda.

Some also alluded to the fact that Don Basche was denied a variance to build his home closer to the lake some 30 years ago.

Newer homes around the lake, including those in Ocheda Heights, built homes without infringing on the 150-foot setback.

"One of our duties is to review all of the information given to us," Environmental Services Director Wayne Smith told the five-member board. "We want to make sure that we take time to view all of the information."

Joe Vander Kooi said the reason for the variance request was for practicality.

"It's the topography," he said. "We're not seeking to be closer to the lake. We wouldn't be here today if the hill sloped back another 50 feet.


"Our lot, we feel is somewhat unique," he added. "None of the lots recently developed have the degree of backslope that this property has."

Vander Kooi said he was not interested in removing any of the existing trees to improve his view, but rather he wanted to take advantage of the slope of the hill to set his house in and allow for a walk-out basement. Shifting the house farther to the south to avoid the hill would mean cutting into their crop ground, and also restricting the view of the area at the bottom of the hill, which would one day be an area where their kids would play.

"This site offers a good view of the lake and nearly the entire property," he said of the area where they wanted to build their home. The property is already zoned residential-recreational.

Board member Jim Gruye, who mentioned several times during the meeting that the Vander Kooi land offers numerous opportunities to build without encroaching on the setback, said the need to bring in more fill to build the home farther back from the lake shouldn't be considered a hardship.

"You went to considerable expense building a road, putting water lines in and putting electrical lines in," Gruye said.

"Guilty," Joe Vander Kooi responded.

"Are you considering, down the line, selling land off (for development)," Gruye followed.

The Vander Koois said it wasn't their intention to sell off parcels, but Joe said he was leary of putting a "forever stipulation" on a piece of real estate. Rita said if something changed with the farm economy and they needed income, it could be a consideration, but said their intent is that theirs will be the only home along the .6-mile-long driveway.


Addressing the concerns for infringement on the wildlife corridor, Joe Vander Kooi said he didn't think having a home infringe on the setback would have that much of an impact. He said the deer trails are below the bluff and closer to the lake.

"If I choose to have a hyperactive Black Lab, that's going to have more impact on the wildlife than having a house that's 25 feet closer to (the shoreline)," he said. "With the bluff setback ... I would have more of a natural buffer and my lawn wouldn't be near as close as the average property on Lake Ocheda."

Board member Brent Feikema said he didn't think the variance would impact wildlife either.

"We get deer 25 feet from our door and we don't have a lake home," Feikema said. "I don't think it's an issue."

As for precedent, the board was instructed that their decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis, and that prior considerations on other parcels cannot be considered.

Richard Fellows, who farms land directly south of where Vander Koois hope to build, said the precedent is important. By maintaining the 150-foot setback, it keeps runoff, sewer issues and other things away from the lake.

"This is a feeding lake to Lake Bella and the city's water recharge area," Fellows said. "There's a reason all of the houses around the lake have a setback.

"I don't have a problem with Joe and Rita -- they're good people, but a precedent was set," he added. "I speak against, just because this changes precedence of what the rules and regulations were set up for.


Joe Vander Kooi asked the board for consideration "on my site and my site only -- not on precedence."

Gruye, who has served on the board of adjustment, said he was part of the group that made judgments on each of the three basins of Lake Ocheda in terms of the type of development that could occur around them. The 150-foot setback on the west basin was to ensure homes wouldn't encroach on the wildlife, and he said a lot of effort went into their decision.

Ultimately, Gruye moved to deny the Vander Koois the variance request, and received support from fellow board member Byron Swart. The vote failed on a 3-2 vote, with Feikema, Bruce Lease and Larry Janssen opposed.

A second motion, to approve the variance as requested, died for lack of a second.

The third motion, presented by Lease, was to approve a 16-foot variance to put a deck on the house. That motion was seconded by Gruye and passed 4-1, with Feikema opposed.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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