Robert Kanuit

New County Ordinance Affects Land Divisions

If you are considering buying or selling only a part of an existing tax parcel of land, a new amendment to the St. Louis County Subdivision Ordinance that took effect last summer may affect what you can do.

Before subdivision ordinances became common, landowners could divide their property virtually any way they pleased. All that was required was a legal description (a description of the boundaries of the property in words) of the new parcel, and a deed of that new parcel to the new owner.

Oftentimes, however, the new legal description created by the landowner was not accurate, resulting in boundary disputes with neighboring landowners and title problems.

Another common problem was that landowners of property being split didn’t consider zoning or septic system rules when splitting-off the new parcel. As a result, some newly created parcels were not buildable because they did not meet these requirements. Unfortunately, many buyers didn’t find this out until after the transaction was closed, and were greatly disappointed that they could not build on their newly acquired parcel.

In response to this, many counties and cities passed subdivision ordinances, which are laws that regulate how land can be divided or split, and establish a process for getting approval of a proposed land division. Almost all counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin (and some cities) have these ordinances. Interestingly, these ordinances vary considerably from county to county and city to city. There is no all encompassing state law regarding land divisions in either Minnesota or Wisconsin, except for laws concerning residential subdivision plats, which are outside the scope of this article.

This article focuses on the new amendments to St. Louis County’s subdivision ordinance passed last summer. St. Louis County’s subdivision ordinance applies to any land in St. Louis County that is not within a city or within the following townships: Duluth Township, Canosia Township, Gnesen Township, Greenwood Township, Lakewood Township, Midway Township, and Rice Lake Township. Land splits in cities and these townships are governed by their individual ordinances which, again, vary considerably. If your land is in the city limits or in one of these townships, please review that particular ordinance before attempting any land split. The county ordinance does not apply to your situation.

So what does the St. Louis County ordinance require? First and foremost, it requires the landowner to submit a split application and get that application approved before dividing land and transferring any portion of it to someone else. This means you must get written approval of the proposed division from the County before deeding the property to someone.

The application must include: (1) a survey of the existing parcel and the proposed new parcel; (2) the proposed new legal descriptions for both parcels; and (3) copies of documents to show that you actually own the property (like a deed or a certificate of title). The county may have additional requirements depending on the type of property you are dividing and how you propose to do it. These additional requirements may include septic system suitability studies, archeological studies, wetlands delineations, soil studies, proof of legal access, or a lawyer’s opinion of title. All of these requirements are described in detail in the ordinance.

The ordinance also limits how land divisions can be done. It does this by only allowing certain kinds of divisions. They are as follows:

  1. Lot Line Adjustment – this type of land division is allowed to change boundary lines on property that is already part of a subdivision plat. The division cannot create any additional lots for development, and the adjoining landowners must agree that the lot line should be moved. An example of a land division like this would be where one neighbor asks another to agree to move the boundary between their lots so a setback requirement for a new garage can be met.
  2. Equal Subdivision of a Quarter-Quarter Section – a quarter-quarter section (sometimes known as a “forty”) is the smallest division of land created in the original government survey. Most forties are not really 40 acres, but they are usually close to that. This type of land division allows a forty to be split in half or into quarters, as long as the resulting lots are equal in size and meet all county zoning requirements.
  3. Property Abutting a Public Road – this type of division allows property abutting a public road to be divided into parcels at least 4.5 acres in size and 300 feet wide (or wider if required in the particular zoning district). This type of division is intended for development of large lots with clear public road access.
  4. Minor Subdivision – this type of division allows a parcel along a public road or with legal access to a public road to be divided for development purposes into lots no smaller than 2.5 acres and at least 200 feet wide. If the only access to the lots is by water, the lots must be at least 4.5 acres and have at least 300 feet of lakeshore each. Though called a “minor” subdivision, in most respects, the requirements for this type of division are almost as rigorous as those required for a conventional subdivision plat.
  5. Performance Standard Subdivision – this type of land division is similar to a minor subdivision, but a maximum of three lots may be created, unlike a minor subdivision which has no such limitation. Since only three lots may be created, the requirements for a performance standard subdivision are less than for a minor subdivision. They are still considerable, however.
  6. Conventional Subdivision Plat and Conservation Subdivision Plat – these subdivisions are intended for intensive small-lot land development. The requirements are very complex, and also involve compliance with state law under Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 505. Accordingly, any attempt at approval of such a subdivision should only be undertaken with the assistance of an experienced surveyor and an experienced real estate development attorney.

Failure to comply with the ordinance is a misdemeanor, and each day a violation exists is considered a separate offense. Prosecution for offenses is commenced by issuance of a citation to the offending landowner. Anyone who assists the landowner in dividing property in violation of the ordinance may also be charged with a violation.

In addition, any landowner negatively impacted by a violation of the ordinance has a right to bring a private lawsuit against the landowner to undo the division.

The St. Louis County Subdivision Ordinance is a very complex law and contains many requirements and details not discussed in this article. This article is only a summary of the law’s most important provisions. Please seek advice from a qualified real estate attorney if you have questions about the law and its requirements.

Robert R. Kanuit is an attorney at Fryberger, Buchanan, Smith & Frederick, P.A., practicing since 1994 in the areas of real estate law, business law, and wills and trusts. You can reach him at the firm’s Duluth office at (218) 725-6836.