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Crow Wing County Board: Homeowners challenge board on development - Commissioners split in support for project

Property owners irate over a proposed housing development near their homes clashed with Crow Wing County Commissioners Tuesday during a testy board meeting.

Miles Circle residents and others attend a meeting of the Crow Wing County Board concerning the proposed Sanctuary development near their homes. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
Miles Circle residents and others attend a meeting of the Crow Wing County Board concerning the proposed Sanctuary development near their homes. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch

Property owners irate over a proposed housing development near their homes clashed with Crow Wing County Commissioners Tuesday during a testy board meeting.

Prior to two split 3-2 votes in favor of rezoning land and approving a plat for the proposed Sanctuary housing project, board members and testifiers got into several tense exchanges.

The proposed project land sits between the Gull River and the Miles Circle neighborhood in Unorganized Territory. Plans call for converting what was most recently Potlatch Corporation-owned property to a dense development containing five duplex units known as the Sanctuary. To accomplish this, developer Tracts LLC must first acquire a change to the land-use map, rezoning the parcel from rural residential-10 to rural residential-5. This means instead of allowing just one residence per 10 acres, the change would allow one residence per 5 acres-except the company is also requesting a conditional use permit and a variance allowing more dense development bordering the highway.

The Crow Wing County Planning Commission/Board of Adjustment took up the issue July 20, recommending approval of the land use amendment and preliminary plat for the property, along with approval of both the conditional use permit and the variance request. Final approval of the land use amendment and plat rested with the Crow Wing County Board.

But first, the board heard from a group of Miles Circle residents concerned over what they felt was a threat to their property values and the rural character of the neighborhood. Most of them said they would have no problem with the area being developed generally-they simply had issues with Tracts' plan specifically, including creating a new road and removing trees adjacent to the existing Miles Circle houses. Chad Anderson pointed out since residents there lived in Unorganized Territory, they had no other representatives to carry their voice besides the county government itself. But the county wasn't interested in any give-and-take with the Miles Circle residents, Anderson said.

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"You, the county board, were elected by the county residents to represent everybody-not just developers," Anderson said. "To this point, just from what I've dealt with, I feel like it's been rather one-sided."

The fact the developer needed to get so many special allowances and permits from the government indicated the project maybe wasn't the best idea, Anderson added.

But Commissioner Paul Thiede looked to poke a hole in Anderson's argument. He asked county staff if there was a way to see if Miles Circle had any special variances from zoning law when it was originally developed in the 1980s.

Land Services supervisor Chris Pence said it would be hard to say whether there were zoning variances, since it happened decades ago.

Then Thiede switched his question-if Miles Circle were developed today, would they need a variance for their level of density?

Yes, came the reply from county staff.

Ed Northway, another Miles Circle resident, asked rhetorically that even if Miles Circle needed a variance when it was built back in the day, would that alone justify building another high-density development?

"People moved out here because they want to be in the woods," Northway said. "This is a working-class area. We can't afford to be on the lake, so this is our 'sanctuary.'"

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Northway added that appraisers had estimated as much as a 20 percent drop in property value for some Miles Circle residents if the development went through.

If the county board based its decision on changes in property value, Thiede responded, then they opened themselves up to lawsuits since declines in value would be difficult to prove.

Resident Jane White showed commissioners a graphic design representation of what her yard would look like when the road portion of the project was completed: before picture, full of trees; after, barren. A real estate agent told her that property value would decline about $50,000 and advocated White sell the property now before the development-but White couldn't do that to a potential buyer in good conscience, she said.

Doug Hogue, board chairman, suggested White plant new trees of her own. That's what he might do if it were his property, Hogue said.

If it were Hogue's property, White shot back, the road wouldn't go there in the first place.

That remark drew laughs and applause from the other residents.

Jeff Berg, another testifier against the project, called out commissioners for not paying attention while he was giving testimony. Paul Koering was talking with County Administrator Tim Houle and not looking at Berg.

"Are you listening?" Berg asked Koering pointedly.

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"I'm trying to decide what I'm going to do on this, is what I'm doing," Koering snapped back.

"I'm giving testimony, and you should listen to my testimony," Berg said.

"All right, fine," Koering said.

Koering referred to Berg's criticism again, later in the hearing.

While developer Tracts LLC had previously declined to comment, on Tuesday Andrew Ranweiler of the company defended the proposed Sanctuary development. Of the 57 acres in the development he said, none of them would be partitioned into 1-acre plots, he said-refuting a claim he said the residents had made. The developers worked with the county to try and reduce the impact on privacy for existing landowners, he said. The county asked the developers to try and leave as many trees as possible on the side of the road, Ranweiler said. The county also required a change in the road, to put a right turn lane in.

Additionally, the houses are planned to be townhomes as opposed to duplexes, so they could be sold individually, Ranweiler said. He seemed to try to counter the "rural character" argument by saying the development would likely soon be part of the city of Baxter, as the city grows and annexes more land.

"I agree, this was a rural setting 30 years ago," Ranweiler said. "County Road 77 has changed a lot in the last 30 years."

The area needed housing, he said.

Just after Hogue asked the board if there were any further discussion and tried to call the vote, commissioner Rosemary Franzen spoke up to say she had some water quality concerns. The topography indicated water flow from the development into the Gull River, she said. She was also disquieted at the project's tree removal aspect.

"There's a lot of things about this I don't like, I'll just leave it at that," she said.

Thiede jumped on Franzen's comment that she had a water quality concern.

"I can't let commissioner Franzen make that statement, and try to say someone that votes for this is against water quality," he said. "I just find that to be a facetious argument, and I don't support that."

Franzen, however, made no mention of votes for the project equating to votes against water quality.

In the end, the board voted 3-2 in two separate Sanctuary motions: one to rezone the property and one to approve a plat.

In both cases, commissioners Thiede, Koering and Hogue each voted in favor while Franzen and Rachel Reabe Nystrom voted against.

The Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners listens as they deliberate whether to rezone property for the proposed Sanctuary development near the Miles Circle neighborhood in Unorganized Township. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
The Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners listens as they deliberate whether to rezone property for the proposed Sanctuary development near the Miles Circle neighborhood in Unorganized Township. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch

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