Despite construction in progress, The Harbor battle continues

EAST GULL LAKE--A trucker and a retired English teacher continue to tangle with the government of East Gull Lake over a housing development now under construction on the lakeshore.

East Gull Lake City Councilor Carol Demgen, left, and Mayor Dave Kavanaugh are sworn in for new terms of office during a city council meeting Jan. 3. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
East Gull Lake City Councilor Carol Demgen, left, and Mayor Dave Kavanaugh are sworn in for new terms of office during a city council meeting Jan. 3. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch

EAST GULL LAKE-A trucker and a retired English teacher continue to tangle with the government of East Gull Lake over a housing development now under construction on the lakeshore.

Since last summer, Paul Sachs and his aunt Pamela have opposed plans for a 27-unit homeowner's association on Squaw Point Road, called The Harbor. In addition to the houses themselves, an actual harbor will be built in an adjacent water channel with a marina consisting of private boat slips for each housing unit.

The Sachs opposed the project on environmental grounds, saying it would harm local wildlife habitat and fishing. After an initial flash of public outcry, the project passed through the city approval process. But in a Dec. 22 letter to the city council, Paul Sachs questioned whether the required public hearings were held before the council decided the project could happen.

"Can you please explain to the citizens of East Gull Lake why they (were) not entitled to comment on the passage of The Harbor project prior to approval by the city council?" Sachs said in the letter. "Are there not procedural laws that are required prior to approving a project like this that include a public forum?"

Sachs said he aims for the permit to be reversed and for the city to redo the process in an open and legal way rather than springing it on the people of East Gull Lake.


"We've continued to fight because we feel that the citizens kind of got left out of the process," he said.

City Administrator Rob Mason said he was confused why controversy persisted even after the project was thoroughly vetted by state agencies and construction began.

A planning and zoning meeting in August drew roughly 50 people crammed tightly into the East Gull Lake City Hall, but subsequent meetings were less well attended-the Sept. 13 meeting when the city council actually signed off on the development had about 25 people show up.

"After they got all the facts and the figures, let's just say the crowd kind of dwindled," he said. "That's pretty typical, I think, of big things like this where there's a lot of hype, there's a lot of rumors that get flying around. But then when they come in and they actually find out what the facts are, I think they're a little less leery of what's going on."

The Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously voted to recommend approving the project, and the city council unanimously voted to follow the recommendation and approve it.

Construction work began late last year, and so far crews have completed much of the excavation, as well as dredging the adjacent water channel in preparation for the docks to be installed. Construction on two of the 27 planned units will begin shortly, Mason said.

The city council gave the public the chance to speak on the project during the Sept. 6 city council meeting. Local environmentalist and Central Lakes College sociology professor Gary Payne gave testimony during which he warned the project would further degrade the environmental quality of the lakeshore area.

"We're suffering the death of a thousand cuts here," he said, adding the development constituted another large "cut."


Since the public was provided an opportunity to comment during the Sept. 6 city council meeting a week prior, the council didn't allow public comment during the Sept. 17 meeting, which it classified as a "continuation" of the Sept. 6 public hearing.

The city attorney was in the process of drafting a response to Sachs' letter, Mason said. Sachs said they may take the issue to court, although he was waiting to see how the city responded before he went further.

Developer's donation

Developer Martin Harstad donated 12 acres of land near The Harbor to the city, which Mason announced at a city council meeting Jan. 3

"It wasn't one of these under-the-table deals," Mason said later. "Marty all along said, 'My intention is to donate the property on the south side because it's financially a better situation for me to take a tax deduction."

Although some of the planning commission members wanted to make donation of the land a formal condition of giving the permit, they and the city councilors were cautioned by the city attorney that would be dubious, Mason said. They were to consider the permits on the assumption they wouldn't get any donation.

"Whether that influenced them or not-those people that made the decision, the planning commissioners and the councillors-you'd have to ask them that question," he said.

At one point in 2005, Harstad had considered donating all of the property since the economy wasn't as amenable to developments back then, he said.


Two of the parcels Harstad donated had outstanding road assessments of about $700 each from 2008 where money was still owed to the city. At the city council meeting, Mason proposed the city forgive the assessment, since Harstad no longer owned the property. Mayor Dave Kavanaugh said the city attorney could look into whether it was possible.

Personal and personnel issues

The Sachs are motivated more by a personal connection to the land-Pamela's father owned it for a time until the early 1960s-than by environmental concerns, Mason said.

"I'm doing my job to the best of my ability, but she's made it a personal issue," he said.

Mason has lived in East Gull Lake for 40 years, and doesn't want to do anything to upset the town's balance, he said.

Paul Sachs denied he has a personal beef with Mason saying he was just trying to get him to adhere to the law.

"Personally, I don't have a problem with the guy," Sachs said. "I've had some very decent conversations with him. I don't have a problem with him personally other than the fact that we feel that some of the laws actually were broken."

Asked what laws he thought Mason had broken, Sachs said Mason pushed regulatory agencies, especially the Department of Natural Resources, to approve the project so the city could receive the land donation from Harstad.


"Mr. Mason told me that one of the major reasons they were looking at the project was because (Harstad) had offered this land donation," he said.

Sachs later clarified he was not directly accusing Mason of being bribed.

"No, I'm not," he said. "I don't have evidence to support that, other than the verbal conversations I've had with him."

However, he said he continued to look through city documents and meeting recordings and if there was indeed evidence of improper collusion, he would look into forwarding the matter to the proper authorities and getting charges filed.

In emails to the Dispatch, Pamela Sachs said while Paul Sachs had been looking into the legal aspects of the permitting decision, she had investigated Mason's dual role of city administrator and planning and zoning administrator. She found his qualifications to be lacking, she said.

"I have made some progress-found out he has no educational background that qualifies him for either position," she wrote. "That is not so important for city administrator but the rules and regulations for planning and zoning are very complicated. Anyway, the guy is collecting over 1/10th of a million dollars a year for this job."

Mason's response to the quote was to say that he had more than 20 years of experience on the planning and zoning board, all but one of which he served as chair.

Sachs said she was asking questions as a citizen of East Gull Lake, not as someone with an ax to grind.


"I am not on a personal vendetta to make Mr. Mason look bad," she said, adding she held him responsible for the way The Harbor project was handled by the city.

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