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Cass County reviews land ordinance

BACKUS — For a year two study committees, Cass County Planning Commission/Board of Adjustment and Environmental Services Department (ESD) employees have worked to revise the county land use ordinance.

Monday, Cass County commissioners added their comments and questions to the draft revisions.

Changes, especially those focused on sections dealing with gravel pits and resorts, have been designed to try to reach a balance between businesses and their neighbors and to maintain lake water quality.

One section to be removed from two places dealt with easements. It called for owners of residential properties adjacent to agricultural property or extractive uses (gravel pits) to sign an easement acknowledging that those uses existed before they bought adjacent property.

The concept was to discourage neighbor complaints about noise, smell and dust from such businesses. ESD has never applied such an easement to any land sale being made on adjacent properties, because of concern the easement could not legally be enforced, according to County Planner Paul Fairbanks.

Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk on Monday asked ESD staff to research whether there might be another way to recognize an existing farm’s or gravel pit’s right to continue operations or to limit land reclassifications to residential when the property is adjacent to such existing businesses.

Fairbanks said he would have the planning commission give the issue further study.

Under the proposed ordinance extractive use section, there are five levels of gravel pit operations identified.

All require obtaining a land alteration permit. Four also require obtaining a conditional use permit. Mining minerals or peat also require obtaining a conditional use permit.

Existing gravel pit owners and operators will have five years from the effective date of the ordinance revision enactment date to register their property and operation with the county. If they do so, they may not need to obtain a conditional use permit to resume operations in their existing pit.

Townships also will be asked to identify gravel pits within their boundaries. If neighbors object to the existing pit operation, owners could be asked to obtain a conditional use permit, Fairbanks said.

The least restrictive pit operation would be a one-season borrow pit incidental to construction where materials are extracted and the property is reclaimed (covered with soil and re-seeded) in the same or next growing season. No conditional use permit is required.

The four operation levels that do require a conditional use permit for new pits, from least to most restrictive, include those for removing material and screening it, those that include crushing, screening, washing, processing, stockpiling of asphalt and concrete demolition materials, those that do the above plus include asphalt production, and those that also include concrete production.

Those pits requiring a conditional use permit will be restricted to operating between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. No operations will be allowed on Sundays, legal holidays or a Saturday preceding a Monday legal holiday.

Properties located within a half mile of the gravel pit boundaries will be notified in advance of the conditional use permit public hearing.

Ron Wickham of Anderson Brothers Construction asked whether the half-mile notification could be from the gravel pit operation area rather than the property boundary.

Fairbanks said property boundaries can be measured electronically, while identifying the actual pit work area would be more difficult and labor intensive.

Hours of operation could be made more restrictive during the conditional use permit process, Fairbanks said, responding to a question from neighbor of a pit operation. He also said pit operators could seek longer hours of operation through a variance.

Exempt from hours of operation would be delivery of fuel, supplies, equipment and related services for pit operators. Also exempt would be movement of under 250 cubic yards of sand/gravel on any day of the week or moving sand/gravel within an owner’s own property.

Heather Schmidt, Hengel Construction, said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) air quality annual reports pit operators are required to complete could meet the county’s proposed requirement to document compliance with noise and dust standards.

She also said state storm water permits cover the county’s concerns about storing road building materials.

Excavation below water table would be permitted with applicable state permits.

Gravel pits will not be allowed within Cass’s one-fourth mile from a public waterway shoreland zone.

To be reviewed in the conditional use permit application process will be safe ingress and egress for hauling trucks and wear and tear on roads.

Few public comments and none from the county board came on changes the planning commission discussed for resorts. The goal of these revisions is to encourage resorts to thrive without permitting them to migrate into becoming individually owned clusters of small permanently occupied housing units that are too close to lakes.

A resort is defined as “a commercial establishment that includes building, lodges, dwelling units, dwelling sites, camping sites, recreational vehicle sites, manufactured housing sites, enclosures, structures…a place where sleeping accommodations are furnished to the public and having for rent three or more cabins, rooms, dwelling units…”

Further, “the resort must be primarily service oriented for transient occupancy for guests seeking recreation” and all units “must be included in the resort rental business at rates set by the commercial establishment.”

“The commercial establishment must own, lease and must control the entire parcel of land on which the resort is operated and the commercial establishment must control and manage the resort business. The commercial establishment must hold the applicable resort license(s) and permit(s).”

The planning commission is still wrestling with how much of the season or year each unit at a resort must be made available to renters when there are multiple ownerships in the unit.

New resort applicants must locate their operation in a water oriented commercial district and obtain a conditional use permit. The must have a minimum of three contiguous acres and 400 feet of lot width.

At least 50 percent of the land area must be preserved as open space, with 25 percent of that space suitable for recreation. At least 25 feet of open space must surround each structure.

Written shoreland vegetative buffer and storm water management plans must be provided with applications.

Resorts must connect to publicly owned sewer and water systems where available or provide a central on-site system if not available. Docks and swimming areas must be centralized.

If a resort changes ownership or control that involves land subdivision, a conditional use permit authorizing that change in control will be required.

If a resort is converted to a residential development, that conversion must meet county standards for a conservation development residential property.

Operating resorts may replace existing structures within the original footprint and no closer to the abutting lake. If a cabin is lost to fire or natural disaster, an application to replace it must be made within 180 days.

Resorts currently in good standing which existed prior to Aug. 15, 2005, will be allowed to add up to six dwelling units during the life of the resort (not per owner) on the footprint of the resort as it existed in 2005. New units must meet current setback requirements.

If land is added to a resort for expansion, the proposed development must meet new resort standards.

The county proposes to make changes in other sections of the ordinance to put emphasis on native plants for shoreland buffer zones between a waterway and lawn area around buildings. Cass County has required for a few years replacing native plants in a buffer zone by the lake whenever someone applies for a variance.

“Individual sewage treatment systems” will become “subsurface sewage treatment systems” and referred to by the acronym SSTS.

A section changes the criteria for variances from “hardship” to “practical difficulties” to conform with changes made last year in state law.

Some proposed revisions will be more lenient. People would be able to build a fence up to eight feet high instead of only six. They could measure their building setbacks from the building structure unless eaves are more than 30 inches.

A change to the subdivision ordinance would allow people up to one year rather than 120 days to record any new plat.

More details on proposed ordinance changes can be viewed on the county website at

A draft of these ordinance changes will be presented for public comment at a public hearing before the planning commission sometime in May.

After that hearing, the planning commission may make further changes before presenting a final draft to the county board for another public hearing and adoption this summer.