HART seeks temporary use of school farm as animal shelter
A request to use part of the school farm for a temporary animal shelter was before the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday.
Along the way the conversation evolved to include whether the county board should have its own attorney aside from the county attorney.
But the main issue at hand was potential use of the school farm by Heartland Animal Rescue Team (HART).
Crow Wing County leases the property known as the school farm to the Brainerd School District. The land is along Highway 25 south of Brainerd. The school district is considering subletting a portion of the school farm to HART to allow it to continue to operate for six months — May through October — while its Dellwood Drive site by Menards undergoes a significant renovation.
The school district already subleases part of the school farm to The Center for its greenhouse.
If privately owned, the process would take the request to the planning commission for a conditional use permit (CUP). The same process doesn’t apply to tax-forfeited land, which the school farm is.
Subject to school board and county board approval, HART would pay for any costs need to get the site to meet its needs and then pay $1 rent and utilities.
County Attorney Don Ryan said the school district, which communicated with him, stated there was space at the school farm to accommodate the use.
Commissioner Doug Houge asked if a public hearing at the next board meeting would suffice.
Mark Liedl, land services director, said he believed the best course of action would be to take the issue to the April 17 planning commission for a temporary CUP. That way, Liedl said, would allow for a public notice and people could voice their opinions.
“I think this is a wonderful solution,” said Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom. “HART is a wonderful facility.”
Nystrom said to her it made perfect sense to work together.
Commissioner Paul Koering, who represents the district, wanted to give the neighborhood residents a chance to say what they thought.
“I think that they need to be asked,” Koering said. “I want to hear from people if they think it’s a good idea or a bad idea.”
Koering said he was in favor of the option and a HART supporter, but the public should have the opportunity to say something. Thiede agreed having public input was good.
The board could still approve the use even if the planning commission was against the plan. The board had the option to go forward Tuesday or wait for the April 17 hearing.
Ryan noted if the board was opposed Tuesday that would likely be the end of the concept.
Ryan said if the planning commission denies the CUP, the board would still legally have the option to approve the use.
Commissioner Paul Thiede said he was sensitive to Koering’s wishes for his district but the reality is the rules governing the tax-forfeited property are different than the normal process.
Liedl said the question is to what extent does the county do whatever it wants. Liedl said the animal shelter wouldn’t be permissible in the neighborhood without a CUP according to the county ordinance, but the tax-forfeited property, or government land, is not subject to the zoning ordinance. Fair play, Liedl said, would be to let the neighbors know and waive any application fee to HART to take the matter to the planning commission.
“This is the taxpayers’ land,” Koering said, adding for the county to say “here’s the set of rules for you but yet this property here we don’t have to abide by the rules — I don’t like that.”
Thiede said Koering should have corrected that problem when he was a state senator. Koering replied maybe he’d run for Senate again and then the board wouldn’t have to put up with him anymore. Koering said all he was asking was to give the public a chance to say something on the subject.
“I’m not disagreeing with you,” Thiede said.
The board voted to retain all its options for response but to send the matter to the planning commission.
After the vote, Koering questioned why the issue went to the county attorney’s office and not to the administrator. Ryan said after years of developing relationships with area school districts, they typically direct issues with a legal nature to him.
“OK and then once you are not the county attorney anymore then I would assume they would refer to the administrator after you’re gone,” Koering said.
Ryan said there is significant change afoot in how county government is administered statewide, but it seems to him when a legal question comes up it should be directed to the county attorney’s office or referred there.
“What will happen when I’m not county attorney anymore — none of our positions are finite — I can’t tell you,” Ryan said. “I’m not trying to create a debate. I’m just trying to answer your question.”
Thiede asked if the county attorney’s position isn’t mainly for prosecution of crime and whether the county board seeks Ryan’s legal opinion is the board’s role not his.
“I would disagree with that,” Ryan said, noting statutorily the book on the county attorney’s duties is 2 inches thick. “I am the attorney for the county board and the county operations.”
Houle said it can be murky and there isn’t always a bright line distinction between administration and the practice of law.
“I wish it were clean and these bright line distinctions were as clean as we might like them to be, but the reality is it’s a bit of a murky business,” Houle said.
Koering said there is a statute allowing the board to go to the voters and ask to retain its own counsel and the county attorney would do prosecutorial work. Ryan said he’s not aware of any county that has done that, but if that is what this board chooses to do they can have that discussion then.
Nystrom asked how the board got along when she and Houge were gone recently. Good, Koering replied. Koering said it wouldn’t be different than the cities hiring legal counsel.
“You are not suggesting we would ever disagree with our county attorney on any legal matter?” Thiede said.
Koering said, “Oh yes, I am.”