An exercise in trying to shape future commercial growth along Pine Beach Road went down in flames after stiff opposition from residents convinced the Crow Wing County Board to maintain the status quo.
Commissioners took no action during their April 11 board meeting on a proposal to reassign 10 properties on the north side of the road also called County Highway 77 as commercial instead of residential. At the recommendation of the planning commission/board of adjustment, this request for board action was a pared down version of a more sweeping proposal that would have affected more than 50 properties along a 1.5-mile corridor, including several in shoreland districts around Red Sand and Carlson lakes.
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A number of those who live on residential property in the area, alongside the White Sand Lake Association and the city of Baxter, weighed in on the county’s proposed changes by letter, petition and during a planning commission public hearing. Disapproval was unanimous among those who provided comment, with many citing a lack of clarity on the impetus behind the proposal along with environmental concerns, impacts on traffic volumes and frustration with how the county presented the information in its notifications.
“Rezoning this area to make it commercially designated is not in the best interest of the residents. Those residents being both human and the natural wildlife that live in the wooded areas along CR 77,” wrote Brian and Rhonda Smith, 35-year residents of the area. “The already busy road will become even busier, and much more dangerous for the residents that live and walk on (the) side of the road. This designation takes away from the natural beauty that is still left there, as so much commercial encroachment has already been allowed.”
The land use map amendment proposal was born from a series of work sessions between county staff, the planning commission and the county board in 2020 and 2021. The work sessions sought to address long-term planning for commercial development along the easternmost leg of the county highway, which circumnavigates Gull Lake and travels into and out of Cass County.
The desire to explore the county’s role in encouraging growth arose amid individual requests for land use map amendments on Pine Beach Road — one of which the county board denied and two others it granted. Airing concerns about spot zoning, commissioners directed land services staff to look for ways the county could be more intentional in shaping the corridor seeing a slow creep toward commercialization.
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During the April 11 meeting, the board heard from Loren Beilke, a board member of the White Sand Lake Association, who participated virtually. Beilke told commissioners any impacts on neighboring Red Sand Lake would ultimately affect its larger, connected counterpart, White Sand Lake.
“My concern here is I think the residents were really caught off guard with this,” Beilke said. “ … We feel those are very valuable assets to the county, but they are very fragile lakes. … Whether you make these changes or not, we would like the county to help us to become better stewards to Red Sand and White Sand Lake.”
A letter from the city of Baxter echoed concerns about the potential for high-intensity use affecting the area’s shallow groundwater and lakes, potentially exacerbating preexisting flooding issues. The city’s boundaries are directly adjacent to the affected area, which is located within the First Assessment District, otherwise known as Unorganized Territory.
“Adoption of the proposed changes would result in the conversion of more than 120 acres to become available for commercial development without consideration to the environmental impacts the decision would have on the surrounding area and areas downstream,” stated a letter from Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson and City Administrator Bradley Chapulis. “ … We strongly encourage the County to have an Alternative Urban Areawide Review (AUAR) completed prior to adopting any changes to the subject area so there is a clear understanding.”
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County board discussion
Commissioner Paul Koering, participating virtually from Florida, said he was surprised to see the city of Baxter weighing in on a county matter.
“I’ve never seen the county board weigh in on any issue that the city of Baxter is doing but I guess we could probably do that in the future,” Koering said. “ … Once (Highway) 371 is, from Baxter to Nisswa, is filled up, there’s going to be future growth. There’s going to be businesses that want to come here, there’s going to be people who want to move here, and it’s our job as policymakers to figure out where this growth should be so that it does not have an impact on Red Sand Lake.
“… I thought this was a good exercise and to me it’s kind of a logical choice. It seems like there’s a lot of property that has become kind of piecemeal commercial along that corridor. I guess I think we’re doing our job.”
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Chairman Steve Barrows, a former Baxter City Council member who represents the city as part of his commissioner district, said he had to defend the city’s involvement. He said the watershed flows into Red Sand Lake and in turn flows into White Sand, which sits 1 foot lower than Red Sand. The southern shore of Red Sand Lake and the entirety of White Sand Lake are within city limits.
“Whatever goes into that water, and if we pollute it, impacts the value of those properties on White Sand. So to me, the city of Baxter does have skin in the game to look at what we do with development along 77 and 371,” Barrows said. “Having said that, I think that we do have a proposal here that minimizes some of that at this point.”
Commissioner Doug Houge confirmed with environmental services supervisor Jake Frie residential homes currently occupied the parcels at issue.
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“If somebody is living in their home happy with their surroundings, why would we just go in and tell them now their parcel is going to be commercial? I’ve never seen that happen before,” Houge said. “I understand this development, I think maybe 20 years ago before it did get somewhat densely populated with residential, this may have been a good thing, but we missed that opportunity. … I just can’t support going in and telling somebody we’re doing the right thing.”
Commissioner Bill Brekken added, “I also was too focused on eliminating the spot zoning and realized at the public hearing that I really wasn’t being open to and listening to what the residents were feeling in that area.”
“I just don’t understand this whole thing,” said Commissioner Rosemary Franzen.
Barrows asked for a motion on the issue, but no commissioners offered one. The silence was punctuated by the sound of tweeting birds picked up by Koering’s microphone as he sat outside.
“I’m not hearing a motion to approve, so with that, this issue dies,” Barrows said.