The city of Nisswa is asking Crow Wing County to hand over tax-forfeited property in the city at no charge to be developed into a new park.
The request would bring to fruition the dream of several neighbors surrounding the forested tracts that’ve already served as de facto nature trails for generations. In a presentation to the county board Tuesday, Feb. 16, Nisswa City Administrator Jenny Max said the proposed park supports the city’s goal to facilitate passive recreation and interaction with natural resources.
The 10-acre stretch nestled between Hole-in-the-Day Lake and Camp Lincoln Road features existing nonmotorized trails and an overlook providing views of a wildlife preserve. With investments by the city of Nisswa over the course of three years, the proposal includes a public parking area with a restroom, informational kiosks and trash cans. A 1.3-mile trail loop would be cleared further and maintained by the city, featuring kiosks along the way sharing information on the lake, the wildlife preserve and Chief Hole-in-the-Day.
The park proposal comes after the same properties were included in the county’s tax-forfeited land sale in 2019 over objections issued by the city and opposition from many in the area, including Sam Cote, director emeritus of nearby Camp Lincoln and Camp Lake Hubert. Zoned as public recreation under the city of Nisswa’s zoning ordinance, the tracts — forfeited sometime between 1937-57 — were apparently overpriced in the sale, valued at nearly $168,000 as if buildable despite the zoning designation prohibiting such use. The tracts did not sell and were set aside as Nisswa worked to develop a proposal for the property.
At the time, County Administrator Tim Houle said the county was willing to come to a solution with the city after it initially raised objections to the sale of the land in 2017. Houle noted as a public entity, Nisswa could acquire the property for below market value — even as little as $1.
That possibility, outlined in state statute for lands intended for public benefit, is now bumping against a recent internal policy clarification approved by the county board.
In December, the board unanimously approved changes to the county’s land asset management policy, including establishing when the county could sell property below market value. Other than for the purposes of correcting blight or creating affordable housing, the policy discourages the sale of land below market value for any other reason, including creating or preserving wetlands, stormwater management, a school forest or land restoration. When land is conveyed for a public purpose under statute, counties must ensure that purpose remains fulfilled for up to 30 years after the change of hands.
“This is the best way to ensure everyone is treated fairly and it eliminates the need to track parcels after sale,” the policy states. “Sales for EMV (estimated market value) also allow the purchaser more freedom to utilize the parcel however they please, with no restrictions.”
Max, however, is asking for an exception to this policy after the county’s own Natural Resources Advisory Committee voted to recommend the land be conveyed at no cost, months ahead of the policy clarification. The request also comes in the wake of a unanimous June 2019 decision of the board to convey tax-forfeited land covering three times the area of the Nisswa property at no cost to the city of Emily for a public beach.
The county board is expected to hear more from Max and vote on the matter Tuesday, Feb. 23. If the board sticks with the policy, Nisswa would be asked to pay $57,900 for the property.
Commissioners differed on how to approach Nisswa’s request, while Houle noted the situation was testing whether the policy should provide for an appeal option.
“The policy is, what I would say, that’s what we would normally do. That’s what staff will tell municipalities we are able to do,” Houle said. “The question is, what do we do then with a municipality that says, ‘Well, we’d like to approach the county board anyway.’ And that’s OK, they get to, I need direction on what do you want us to do with that?”
Commissioner Doug Houge asked how much the Nisswa parcels cost the county, and Land Services Director Gary Griffin responded it wasn’t much, if anything.
“If it doesn’t cost us anything, why do we as a county need to profit on it when it could be conveyed on at no cost for public use?” Houge said, adding the county recently acquired property for $1 from the state to establish the Paul M. Thiede Fire Tower Park in Pequot Lakes. “ … We’re OK with that, as long as the county gets it for a dollar, but now we’re saying we’re going to pass this property on that costs us nothing, a very minimal investment, but we want to profit off that to the cities and/or townships that potentially could put this to good use and benefit the public. It just seems like there’s a disconnect there.”
Commissioner Paul Koering, participating remotely in the meeting, said Commissioner Bill Brekken — who represents Nisswa on the board and aided in bringing the issue forward — couldn’t take no for an answer, despite the board having already decided on the policy.
“I don’t favor it. It should be fair market value,” Koering said.
Brekken pointed to Milford Mine Memorial Park and the fire tower park as examples of what the land in Nisswa could become.
“This would be a chance where the county could participate with the city of Nisswa, kind of recognizing and preserving historic Native American history in our area as well,” Brekken said. “So I think that there’s, I guess, an exception to every situation and I particularly see this one as one of those exceptions because it can be for greater public use.”
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said the board establishes policies for a reason and this one was only recently put in place.
“If we’re not going to follow our own policies, we’re not going to follow our own ordinances, we’re not going to follow anything we do, why do we bother?” Franzen said. “ … Just like the VRBO (vacation rental by owner) ordinance, a lot of us don’t want to follow that either. Should we just throw that out, too? We do have an ordinance. We do have a policy.”
Chairman Steve Barrows asked whether there was an appetite to establish an appeals process as part of the policy. Griffin asked to jump in, stating when the city of Emily asked for the land that would eventually become a public beach, representatives presented a great plan. He said Nisswa did something similar with a specific timeline and goals.
“You definitely can have appeals and I think there’s always exceptions,” Griffin said. “Do you want to update your policy and say if you want to come to the county board, that you must have an implementation timeline and a plan for the proposed public use instead of kind of just wide open? … I see that at least what the city of Nisswa is doing here is thoughtful.”
Houge said he wasn’t sure this situation should be looked at as an appeal but rather incorporated into the policy itself. He said he saw Franzen’s point but the board often learns new information or is presented with new situations after the fact.
“I think ordinance is a living document that we should have and need to be adjusting as time goes. I don’t want to set something in place and then have to live by it for the rest of, because things change,” Houge said.
Barrows said because Nisswa first brought this issue before the policy was established, he feels an appeals process is a worthy consideration.
Houle approached the mic to clarify the difference between ordinances and policies after board discussion began conflating the two.
“Ordinances bind us all. It is law. You can’t violate the ordinance. You can change the ordinance, but you can’t violate it,” Houle said. “Policy is guidance for staff. You guys have exceptions to policies and can have exceptions.”
Houle listed scenarios in which the board might wish to make exceptions, such as a city seeking to build a sewage treatment plan or place stormwater retention ponds on tax-forfeited property.
“This is relevant because there is an interplay between what the county does and what the city does or the township does. And you can see it in the zoning. If this were zoned residential, it has one value. If it’s zoned for public recreation, it has a completely different value,” Houle said. “We’re not in charge of that. And so the city or the township has the authority to change what can be done with that parcel, which of course will impact the market value of that parcel. …
“It’s not that we’re operating in a vacuum. And so you have to contemplate this from the perspective of, we’re not the only ones here that can exert influence.”
Koering said he still held the same position.
“It appears there’s probably three in favor of it, so I can see which way we’re going,” he said.