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County board sets December public hearing for river project

Crow Wing County commissioners Tuesday approved a Dec. 13 public hearing for a Parks Legacy Grant application for the Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex.

The 1,988-acre property, currently owned by Potlatch, has 2.7 miles of direct frontage on the southern bank of the river and could be linked to create a nine mile stretch of protected natural shoreline.

The board heard in fiscal year 2013 funding could be available from the Outdoor Heritage Fund. The project involves the state, Potlatch, The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land and other supporters. The project needs $14 million.

The project sets aside undeveloped land along the Mississippi River near the Brainerd Lakes Airport for public use, recreation and

hunting and fishing. The grant application is aimed at getting parks and trails dollars to offset Legacy Act funding for the proposed project as discussions include having the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail go through the property.

The board will meet as its Committee of the Whole next Tuesday to talk about the project. One of the questions is whether the proposed project will be managed by the county or the state. Previously the county board noted not developing the land was in the county’s interest as residential development near the airport and the county’s landfill could be a conflict in an area already heavy with public investment.

A question for the board may be whether public reaction favors setting the land aside or if there is a concern about losing potential tax revenue on the property.

On Tuesday, Board Chairman Paul Thiede said a way to offset possible public reaction is to develop part of the land closer to Highway 210 to offset those costs. Thiede drew up a rudimentary sketch of the property indicating where land could be developed into an urban spot either residential or commercial. How to develop that land by the airport and the county’s landfill could attract national interest and retain a tax base, Thiede said.

The county administers 103,000 acres of public land. Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom noted with that amount of county-owned land, why would even an inch be carved out of the Mississippi River project to have someone live between the airport and the landfill.

Thiede said he believed the idea of development there, which could create a parking lot and allow greater public access if it could be shared, could attract national interest to answer the question of how it could be done.

He said the general public would have a better feeling the county is not just setting 2,000 acres aside.

Nystrom said the subject was making her nervous but she welcomed more conversation about it. The board expected to discuss it in more depth at an upcoming Committee of the Whole meeting.

Tim Houle, county administrator, noted the county is also trying to attract interest in a buyer for the methane gas produced at the landfill. It is now used to heat the buildings there but logistics of transporting the gas off site have complicated selling it as a heat source for another business, for example. Houle said having land with that option closer to the landfill may attract a business.

Project supporters note the land, between two large tracts of forested public land along the Mississippi River, represents more than nine miles of undeveloped shoreline and if it is protected from development would create the largest contiguous block of protected lake/river shoreline in the Brainerd lakes area.

Todd Holman, director of The Nature Conservancy, spoke to the board about the grant application. Holman said the parks discussion came up since full funding was approved for the project and would be one way to reduce the Legacy funding needs for the trail portion.

Houle said if the county prefers to have the state own and manage the property, the parks grant application could be withdrawn.

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at or 855-5852.