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County Board says no to extra environmental review of Trout Lake land, but a grant could protect it anyway

Since the project did not meet the threshold to automatically require the environmental assessment process, the local government was tasked with determining whether to recommend the worksheet be completed.

Satellite image of lakeshore property
This Google satellite image of property under consideration for a residential subdivision on Big Trout Lake shows a barge carrying a backhoe near the shoreline, where wetlands meet the lake.
Contributed / Google Maps
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BRAINERD — Highly scrutinized development plans near a sensitive shoreline on the Whitefish Chain won’t be subject to more intensive environmental review — but the property may be headed toward permanent protection anyway.

At the recommendation of land services staff, the Crow Wing County Board rejected a petition Nov. 8 asking for an environmental assessment worksheet on a potential subdivision on Big Trout Lake. Trout is the northernmost lake in the chain and one of the last lakes in the state to support trout. The petition signed by 233 people raised the prospect of significant environmental harm to water quality, loon nesting and aquatic habitat on the lake, should the project move forward without more scrutiny.

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The proposed development, the plans for which feature a lengthy boardwalk system across wetlands to allow residential access to the lake, has already prompted board action. In April, commissioners agreed to place a yearlong moratorium on boardwalk construction inspired by the Trout Lake case, alongside a similar property owned by the same developer planned on Pelican Lake. The moratorium gives staff time to study the issue in pursuit of more robust and clearer regulations amid increased development pressure on marginal lakeshore properties.

“The fear is the environmental damage that would inevitably occur by creating and developing five (5) lots with extensive boardwalk systems through wetlands to gain access to navigable waters of Trout Lake,” stated a letter attached to the petition, which was sent to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board. “Wetlands could be destroyed in an area that is surrounded by managed forest with no direct access to a public road.”

Since the project did not meet the threshold to automatically require the environmental assessment process, the local government was tasked with determining whether to recommend the worksheet be completed. The resolution presented to the board for consideration made the case any environmental issues would be addressed through existing oversight.

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Man speaks at podium
Attorney Mark Severson addresses the Crow Wing County Board on Nov. 8, 2022, asking it to table a resolution deciding whether to require an environmental assessment worksheet for a proposed development on Big Trout Lake.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“Environmental concerns … have been or will be addressed through the existing robust alternative access lot public hearing process, Wetland Conservation Act and floodplain standards, and other local and state mandated regulations,” the resolution stated. “Therefore, the EAW (environmental assessment worksheet) and EIS (environmental impact statement) process will not likely result in any new or different information or conclusions that would not already be brought forward through the existing processes already in place.”

Developer Jethro Carpenter told the board the petition might be moot in any case. He said he signed a letter of intent to sell the Trout Lake property to the National Loon Center in Crosslake. While the purchase isn’t a done deal, Carpenter said the plan wasn’t a secret and the petition didn’t make sense to him.

“They just kind of continue to fight for no particular reason, wasting a lot of your and my time, so we’d like to get this deal done,” Carpenter said. “The EAW is pretty irrelevant, considering … the people who signed the petition for an EAW probably don’t even know what it is or any of the questions. It’s kind of a buzzword that everyone wants to use to delay stuff.”

Man stands at podium
Jethro Carpenter, who purchased land on Big Trout Lake with the intention of creating a residential subdivision with a common lot to provide lake access by boardwalk, speaks to the Crow Wing County Board during the Nov. 8, 2022, meeting. The board considered whether to require an environmental assessment worksheet for the project.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Jon Mobeck, executive director of the National Loon Center, confirmed Thursday, Nov. 10, the existence of Carpenter’s letter. Mobeck said the tentative agreement is contingent upon the center receiving grant funds toward the property purchase from the Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program, which uses funding from the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund. If all goes as planned, the property would be placed into a permanent conservation easement to protect it from development in perpetuity.

“What we heard was there’s an opportunity perhaps to conserve a really valuable piece of wetland habitat on a very high quality and productive loon lake in Big Trout Lake,” Mobeck said during a phone interview. “ … Natural habitats are increasingly rare as shoreland is developed and people put rocks and sandy beaches and so forth. We find fewer and fewer actual natural habitats on the shoreline that include things like bulrushes, reeds, and what you would typically think of in a wetland environment.

“So loons really love that kind of environment. Humans often don’t like that kind of habitat and try to develop over it, and that’s what we try to eliminate.”

The fear is the environmental damage that would inevitably occur by creating and developing five (5) lots with extensive boardwalk systems through wetlands to gain access to navigable waters of Trout Lake.
Attorney Mark Severson

Mobeck said beyond Big Trout Lake’s exceptional water quality — ranked the best among 40 lakes in the Whitefish Chain and surrounding area, according to the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association’s 2021 report — the lake features four active loon territories with nests. Two of those nests are in proximity to the parcel in question, and the center also placed a band on one adult loon near the parcel for long-term study.

The Loon Center took the same approach to preservation once before, acquiring approximately 6 acres of land with over 2,500 feet of shoreline in Fifty Lakes to protect critical loon nesting habitat in 2021.

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Jon Mobeck headshot
Jon Mobeck, executive director of the National Loon Center.
Contributed / National Loon Center

“Sometimes solutions are compromises in nature, but in this case, it can be a win-win in that we can acquire a parcel that is of high conservation value and do so with a seller, in this case, who is at least interested in enabling that kind of purchase,” Mobeck said.

After the County Board agreed to not require the environmental assessment worksheet, Carpenter said outside the meeting he supports selling his property to the Loon Center, if it receives the grant funding.

“I’m taking less money for this project … to help with the process,” Carpenter said. “There’s a lot of — all this stuff that is out there as far as the mudslinging or all the facts or whatever that the attorney put in the letter — almost none of it is true or accurate.”

Carpenter said he believed people became upset based on the original drawing outlining a boardwalk proposal and despite multiple adjustments in the meantime to reduce the footprint, people were swayed by misinformation. His second project on Pelican Lake is also on hold, he said, and he’s hoping to find a buyer interested in preserving that land as well.

“I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do this second, I would say,” Carpenter said. “If it makes WAPOA (Whitefish Area Property Owners Association) — which is kind of the driving force behind the deal — happy, I’m happy to do it to be done with this.”

An aerial overview shows the area proposed for development on Big Trout Lake
The red outline shows the parcel set to become a subdivision on Big Trout Lake. The developer also proposed a boardwalk system to allow future residents access to navigable waters.
Contributed / Crow Wing County

In the cover letter enclosed with the petition, Attorney Mark Severson argues the issue goes beyond this specific piece of property and is reflected in other projects pursued by Carpenter, who has a documented history of failing to follow the law when it comes to working in or near the water.

The letter alleged Carpenter tried to alter wetlands on the Big Trout Lake property in 2021 before he submitted completed plans or obtained a permit, ultimately leading to a beached barge carrying a backhoe due to lower water levels that year. In fact, the barge is visible near the shoreline in the current image of the property on Google Maps.

In June 2019, Carpenter was cited for failing to send in the required contractor responsibility form before starting a job dredging the Bishops Creek channel between Gull and Round lakes. The citation noted Carpenter’s company previously received both a written warning and a citation for the same violation.

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According to Severson, Carpenter is also aiming to develop property near federal lands in Crosslake, with projects started in Aitkin County and on Gull Lake as well.

“This is a statewide issue with broader destruction of remaining quality water sources and wetlands protecting important species,” the letter stated. “The majority of land still available for development on lakes is wetlands, flood-plain designated, or other marginal properties unsuitable for development, rather than riparian lots with direct lake access. The undersigned call for a full-scale environmental review of all the Carpenter projects before it is too late.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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