Crow Wing County Board sinks proposal to redevelop lakefront resort
A plan to develop the former Driftwood Resort property in Ideal Township on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes appears to be dead in the water.
The Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners denied a request for a land use map amendment involving 7.3 acres that would allow the redevelopment of the former resort at its Tuesday, May 28, board meeting.
"It was previously operated as Driftwood Resort until 2009. At that time, it was zoned waterfront commercial. In 2009, they requested a land use map amendment to change it to shoreland district," Land Services Director Gary Griffin said.
The Crow Wing County Planning Commission/Board of Adjustment voted unanimously at its May 16 meeting to recommend board approval of the proposed zoning change from shoreland district back to waterfront commercial.
"You can kind of think of this as an application for a new resort, so that's what they want to do is have a new resort on Whitefish Lake," Griffin said.
The county land services department received over 70 comments from concerned citizens and agencies such as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Crow Wing County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association.
"In general, concerns raised by folks mostly are with the proposed resort, itself, which fall underneath those variances and conditional use permit that's already been approved by the Planning Commission/Board of Adjustment," Griffin said.
The most recent resort proposal includes 22 cabins, a maintenance building, a clubhouse, a lodge and a common lot.
"Those concerns generally include intensity of the development, closeness of some of the cottages to the water, visual concerns, water quality concerns, mooring space concerns," Griffin said of those opposed to the project.
Other variance requests include varying ordinary high water setbacks for cabins 1 through 9 and for various additions and second story additions ranging from 133 to 721 square feet along with decks to those cabins.
"We know that the application has attracted a great deal of interest, and so I think the chair's desire is to open this up for public comment even though the public hearing requirement has been met at the planning commission," County Administrator Tim Houle said.
After lengthy discussion and hearing from almost a dozen audience members at an earlier planning commission meeting, the commission tabled any decisions until members could visit the property after winter. The commission then made its May 16 recommendation to the board.
Jane Gilchrist was among many who spoke at Tuesday's board meeting against the resort proposal. She owns property on Kater Island, which has been in her family for eight decades. She was a tennis instructor for about a decade at the former Driftwood Resort before it closed.
"I'm really objecting to all the variances, especially the variances with the distance from the cabins to the wetlands. That wetland is all vegetation and weeds, and I've taken kids turtle hunting in that bay ... and we couldn't even get through the bay with a rowboat," Gilchrist told the board.
The late Ted and Sue Leagjeld operated Driftwood Resort on Upper Whitefish Lake for 50 years, from 1959 to 2009. The Leagjelds said they hoped to keep the property as a resort, but did sell some land as residential lots.
Developer Tom Steffens and Cindy Hidde of Stonemark Land Surveying appeared before the planning commission seeking to rezone the property to waterfront commercial; to obtain preliminary plat approval; to obtain a conditional use permit to operate the property as a common interest community resort with shared ownership; and to obtain many required variances.
"I am here to implore you to reject this application regarding the Driftwood Resort & Lodge development," Kater Island property owner Lincoln Fetcher told the board. "I am here to defend and protect our waters and land from illegal encroachments."
Among other items, the developer sought 22.5% impervious surface versus the required 25% and 32 mooring slips versus the allowed 21 following the May 16 planning commission meeting.
Whitefish Area Property Owners Association Past President Tom Watson spoke at Tuesday's meeting but appeared before the commissioners as a private citizen with a vested interest.
"Your comprehensive plan very clearly spells out issues with respect to land use, water impacts, environmental concerns, wildlife habitat, etc.," Watson said. "This plan fails it miserably."
Tim Berg of Crosslake spoke on behalf of the proposal and said he was a second generation resorter and was one of two "mom-and-pop" resorts left in Crosslake.
"To not allow another resort out on the (Whitefish) Chain is to be completely discriminatory. You just let anybody buy a house and rent it out as a vacation home," Berg told the commissioners.
"Driftwood was a resort for years before it closed ... so I don't understand why there would be such a big issue. If you have an issue as a whole with people using the lakes and ruining our water, then it's a bigger issue than just Driftwood."
The resort proposal would require 27 variances. The development would be on 7.3 acres of the original 40 acres of the previous Driftwood Resort. Hidde said the previous resort's buildings were mostly on that same 7 acres.
"The planning board never should have approved these variances, and it shouldn't be in front of you today in its current form for you to consider," said Michael Duncan, an Ideal Township resident who appeared before the board.
Hidde told the commissioners, "When everybody talks about these 27 variances, this is a concern for me because the 27 variances—the majority of them are on the lot size requirement, the width and the square footage."
The stormwater management plans do include 60% preservation of shoreline with natural vegetation and no-mow zones.
"I do want to reiterate that this is a sensitive lake. It's sensitive to phosphorus, and it's a lake of high biological significance," said Heidi Lindgren, Minnesota DNR area hydrologist.
The environmental assessment worksheet is a brief document designed to lay out the basic facts of a project necessary to determine if an environmental impact statement is required for the proposed project. A worksheet was not required in this case, according to county officials.
"I'd like to say that an environmental assessment worksheet helps inform permits and would be very useful in a development of this nature, which is fairly intense for the use, whether it's determined to be mandatory or optional type EAW that the county decides to do," Lindgren said.
Julie Moser is a Kater Island property owner whose family has owned the property for eight decades.
"I feel very emotional about this," Moser said. "We have nothing against a small resort like the Leagjelds had there, but all these buildings are right on the waterfront, and it's just a disaster about to happen to the erosion, to the water control."
Developer Steffens told the planning commission eliminating the existing cabins around the shoreline and moving buildings back to comply with setback rules was considered, but that would result in the loss of white and red pines that exist, so a plan was devised to renovate the existing cabins.
"I'm one of the lucky people that gets to live on a lake, and there are a lot of people that are not lucky to live on a lake. That's why we have resorts because there's some people that can't afford to live on a lake. They might be able to have a week or two at a resort, and that's the only access that they can have to those lakes," Commissioner Paul Koering said.
The developer is asking to enlarge the existing cabins to make them functional resort units and is not asking to go closer to the water, according to Steffens, and more mooring slips are sought to accommodate people staying in cottages as well as those traveling to the chain of lakes.
"Based on our ordinance, based on our planning and zoning's input, based on Ideal Township's input, based on our legal opinion that this falls within the current ordinances and guidelines, I'll make the motion for approval," Commissioner Doug Houge said.
Board Chair Rosemary Franzen passed the gavel to Koering, who is vice chair, and seconded Houge's motion to approve the request for a land use map amendment from shoreland district to waterfront commercial that would allow the redevelopment of the former Driftwood Resort.
"Our highway department has no concerns, the town board has done site visits and has sent two letters where they voted unanimously to recommend approval of all the requests, planning and zoning has approved this with all members, so I don't see a problem with this," Franzen said. "You know it's hard to change, it really is. People don't want to change ... but it happens and you live with it. It may not be what you want. ... Not everybody can own a lake place, so a resort is where people can come and recreate."
Houge's motion to approve the request to amend the county land use map, however, did not pass because Koering, and commissioners Bill Brekken and Steve Barrows voted against it. Brekken and Barrows voiced concerns about having a new resort in an area smaller than the old resort.