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Renting a place up north for a week? A primer on being a good guest in lake country

Vacation rentals in Minnesota lake country can be a blast. Squeeze in a bunch of friends, get everybody dancing to Taylor Swift, race each other on jet skis.

It’s all fun and games until officials step in and turn down the music, as Otter Tail County did recently during the height of tourism season.

Responding to complaints about noise and overtaxed septic systems, the county passed an ordinance that will go into effect July 1. It limits the number of people allowed on vacation rental property and enforces quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. It was enough to make a Minnesotan stop in their flip-flops and go, huh? What’d we do wrong?

Minnesotans, being the lovely people we are, naturally want to be good guests. We don’t want local governments to ban VRBO or Airbnb or other vacation rentals, whether we want to party or whether we’re in search of a quiet interlude. I asked around to see how guests can help the situation. Here’s what I heard.

First, consider the neighborhood. Not everybody is there to party.

“You’ve got seniors, you’ve got young kids, you’ve got people that like wake boats, you’ve got people that would rather be in a sailboat,” said Brad Wimmer, vice president of the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations. “You got canoers, you got paddle boaters, fishermen. And we’re all trying to get along.”

It’s hard to understand the dynamics of lake life when you’re only there for a few days. You think, yeehaw, no work for a week, let’s cut loose! Which is great! Here are some tips to make sure it’s great for neighbors, too.

· Introduce yourself to the neighbors. Tell them where you’re from. Offer them your phone number, tell them about your dog. And keep the dog from barking and pooping on their lawn.

· If you’re on a watercraft, know the regulations. Know about how far away from shore you need to be before you rev the engine. If you’re fishing, throw unused bait in the trash, not in the water. Clean all invasive species off your boat before putting it into the water.

· Don’t cram extra people or animals into the house you’re renting. If you’re renting for eight, keep it at eight. Some hosts are OK with daytime parties or celebrations, and some aren’t. Check with them. Otter Tail County’s limits apply day and night.

Now, we’ve got to talk about poop. In Greater Minnesota, many vacation rentals use septic systems, not city sewer. Often what goes down the toilet or the drain ends up getting pumped out, treated with lime, and spread on a farm field. That includes candy wrappers, condoms, cigarette butts and tampons.

“If it ain’t toilet paper and human waste, it shouldn’t go down there,” Dale Schmitz tells me. He owns Schmitz Septic Service in Wadena and knows whereof he speaks.

That includes baby wipes, or sanitary wipes, whatever you want to call them. These soft wipes form bedsheet-sized mats that get tangled in the septic system, Schmitz says. Please don’t throw wipes down the toilet.

I know you don’t want to know this. I know you just want to go out and enjoy the week at the lake. But the other thing you need to know is that septic systems are designed for a specific number of people. So if the system is designed for five people, and you cram 20 people into a house for a week, you’ll strain the system. Wastewater might bubble up out of the ground or leak out of the holding tank. It could therefore end up in the lake. And the big job of county officials in lake country is to protect water. Because nobody wants to swim in a lake tainted by raw sewage.

“I could see why Otter Tail is putting their foot down,” Schmitz told me.

I can, too. When a county takes a step like this with tourism season in full swing, with guests already having booked rentals months in advance, you’d expect they have a pretty good reason.

In the interest of full disclosure, my husband and I have been Airbnb hosts for three years. Our guests have been pretty good, but then our unit is in town, not on a lake, so we haven’t experienced the kind of raucous jubilance lake life can inspire. We’re also about to transition back to long-term rentals because it’s difficult to find time to clean the rental once or twice a week (and sometimes more).

I reached out to fellow Airbnb hosts in Minnesota for other tips on being a good vacation rental guest. They suggested the following:

· Remember that sound travels across the water, so respect quiet hours and keep your voices down.

· When you’re building a fire, keep it well away from shrubs or buildings or anything else burnable. Watch your kids, and extinguish it completely when you’re done.

· Enjoy the lake like you live there year-round.

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