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Crow Wing County hits pause button on sensitive shoreline development

The changes, in effect countywide, mean developers can no longer split shoreland parcels into smaller lots at the land services counter without a more stringent and public process, nor can they seek permits to create walkway systems for residents who otherwise would not have direct access to a lake.

A wetland area
Lengthy discussion and public comments pleading with the County Board to make moves now to avoid irreversible impacts resulted in two significant changes on Tuesday, April 12, 2022: an all-out ban on administrative subdivisions within the shoreland district and a yearlong moratorium on any new boardwalks or other structures crossing wetlands to ease access to navigable waters.
Contributed
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BRAINERD — The future direction of shoreline development in Crow Wing County shifted substantially Tuesday, April 12, with unanimous actions by county commissioners prompted by citizen outcry.

Lengthy discussion and public comments pleading with the County Board to make moves now to avoid irreversible impacts resulted in two significant changes: an all-out ban on administrative subdivisions within the shoreland district and a yearlong moratorium on any new boardwalks or other structures crossing wetlands to ease access to navigable waters.

The changes, in effect countywide, mean developers can no longer split shoreland parcels into smaller lots at the land services counter without a more stringent and public process, nor can they seek permits to create walkway systems for residents who otherwise would not have direct access to a lake. Commissioners ordered staff to study the issue of alternative riparian access over the next year in pursuit of more robust and clearer regulations.

We are compelled to share our voice when we observe such an egregious proposed development on what remains of limited wetlands and associated habitat in the state.
Anne Mootz

An apparent trend toward developing properties near lakes previously left alone in favor of areas with more direct routes to navigable waters led Commissioner Bill Brekken to raise the boardwalk issue last month . Property abutting wetlands and other sensitive shoreline areas represent a dwindling commodity in the Brainerd lakes area: opportunities for new home construction on lakes.

“We do all this work in this county to protect our lakes … and our economy in this county is predicated on tourism,” said Commissioner Steve Barrows. “And we’re down to these kind of fringe ‘lakeshores’ — watch my fingers, because it’s really not lakeshore — but that’s what we have left to really sell or develop. And I want to make sure that we know what the impact is to those lakes when we start dredging across these wetlands.

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“That to me causes a real problem. … On the one hand, we’re trying to say we’re taking care of our waters and on the other hand, we’re digging the daylights out of the bottom of these lakes. I just have an issue with that.”

More coverage of Crow Wing County land use
The County Board unanimously passed a motion March 22 directing staff to prepare a resolution to place a yearlong moratorium on development within alternative access lots, which provide a route to public water access for parcels that would otherwise be stymied by protected vegetation, wetlands or other critical fish or wildlife habitat. A public hearing on the proposed moratorium is required and is expected to take place at the next board meeting April 12.
The decision to send the matter back to the Planning Commission came after commissioners met in closed session Tuesday to discuss the pending litigation, first initiated in October. The resolution notes the county received new information about developer B-Dirt Construction’s compliance with requirements relevant to the approvals, prompting the reconsideration.
Opponents said the development posed threats to the water quality of Horseshoe Lake, would infringe on the enjoyment of existing neighbors’ properties, lead to increased traffic safety concerns and negatively affect the rural character of Mission Township in opposition to the community’s comprehensive plan. Representatives of the developer, meanwhile, argued the final version of the project fell neatly within county ordinance without requiring conditional use permits or variances. In some cases, the project goes above and beyond requirements, they noted.
The approximately 40-acre parcel was once zoned for 10-acre rural residential lots before a zoning change reduced the possible lot sizes to 2.5 acres. Each of the 14 lots is 2.5 acres or slightly larger.
An attorney representing Schieffer told commissioners during a public hearing Tuesday he believed the moratorium was inappropriate, given the helipad is an allowable use under the county’s ordinance both now and when Schieffer acquired interest in the property in question and made his application.
Residents aren’t always aware of the status of a road when they purchase a home, officials said, which can cause problems when it comes time to complete snow maintenance and general upkeep.
Privately built roads that do not meet the construction standards set for township roads are not maintained by township authorities, meaning plowing and other road maintenance is often left up to the individual homeowners.

Specific developments on Big Trout and Pelican lakes featured examples of the proposed boardwalk systems under scrutiny but also cast a spotlight on the administrative subdivision process, spurring neighbors along with leaders of three major lake associations to urge commissioners to make changes. The boardwalk proposal included with the Pelican Lake subdivision has since been withdrawn from consideration for permitting.

A similar boardwalk system is already constructed in a shallow bay on the southern shore of Lower Whitefish Lake and the property owner did not seek a permit from the county. They face potential prosecution as the structure may be a violation of the county’s surface water control ordinance.

“What I think we may be seeing now is administrative subdivisions in the shoreland district being used to avoid the public involvement process,” said County Administrator Tim Houle. “And that probably is the trigger for the neighborhoods about whether or not they think this is getting done under the cover of darkness. It’s an allowed division of property under the current ordinance.”

A man speaks at a podium during a public meeting
Attorney Mark Severson addresses the Crow Wing County Board on regulations pertaining to development of sensitive shoreline during its Tuesday, April 12, 2022, meeting.<br/>
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Mark Severson — an attorney representing concerned neighbors of the Big Trout and Pelican subdivisions pursued by the same developer — told commissioners last month that without further regulation of alternative access, the lakes area was at risk of becoming a miniature Key West. Severson further expounded on the administrative subdivision process Tuesday, calling Brekken’s proposal to take them permanently off the table in the shoreland district “the easy button.”

“Why allow administrative subdivision in shoreland districts? We don’t have a lot left to develop anyway. Why not have heightened standards?” Severson said. “It doesn’t reduce the freedoms that currently exist. It just involves a little more process, a little better information and better notice.”

Emotions ran high during Tuesday’s public testimony, ranging from those expressing anger and frustration over subdivision approvals that cannot be reversed to tears over the recently departed, who cared deeply about the future of the Big Trout Lake. While there aren’t boardwalks installed at the property, the subdivision is already split and some lots sold.

It doesn’t reduce the freedoms that currently exist. It just involves a little more process, a little better information and better notice.
Mark Severson, attorney
An aerial overview shows the area proposed for development on Big Trout Lake
A document shows a proposed boardwalk system forwarded by a developer who intends to build a subdivision on Big Trout Lake. The boardwalk would provide access to navigable waters by allowing residents to travel over wetlands.
Contributed / Crow Wing County

“We wanted to be on Big Trout Lake because of the water quality, the wildlife, the loons — which is an indicator of water quality — (and it’s) one of the only lakes that has trout left in the state of Minnesota,” said Anne Mootz, a resident of Northgate Lane along the north shore of the lake. “ … We never expected to have to be in front of you, given our expectations of Crow Wing County. However, we are compelled to share our voice when we observe such an egregious proposed development on what remains of limited wetlands and associated habitat in the state.”

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More Crow Wing County coverage
In the hearing, 27-year-old Billie Ray Clark plead not guilty to the three counts of felony criminal sexual assault and demanded a speedy trial.

Marilyn Trinka told the County Board since 1947, her family previously owned the land now set for development, and she continues to own the property next door. Trinka said upon her mother’s death three weeks ago, she found a 1949 article about the wetland property.

“They bought it because they found springs in the water and beaver dams,” Trinka said through tears. “We protected these wetlands because they needed to be protected from further erosion. … These are critical wetlands. They’re beautiful.”

Houle said addressing the administrative subdivision matter in the land use ordinance update meant alternative access lots — or those shared between neighbors for things like boardwalks — would be looked at more closely through the platting process, which requires public notice, planning commission recommendation and County Board approval.

Studying the issue would also provide the opportunity for Crow Wing County leaders to consider more specific standards for these lots. Currently, the county’s land use ordinance defines these lots but provides no additional guidance or regulation. Neighboring Cass County, by contrast, has several requirements associated with these lots, including title covenants, joint ownership, centralized facilities, evaluation of land suitability, screening of parking areas or storage buildings, approval of vegetation management plans, impervious surface limitations and stormwater management standards.

A moratorium resolution was already up for County Board discussion Tuesday. The moratorium’s narrow focus on specific kinds of boardwalks — including those running parallel to the ordinary high water mark or those encroaching on adjacent properties or the riparian rights of neighbors — had commissioners brainstorming on how best to broaden it to address the full scope of the problem. Ultimately, commissioners agreed to apply the pause to all boardwalks or any other structures used to gain access across wetlands or other sensitive areas within the shore impact zone.

“I guess I would favor just putting a moratorium for as much time as it takes for us to study this, but put a moratorium on all boardwalks, whether it be for a year,” said Commissioner Paul Koering. “I don’t think that’s much to ask for somebody that’s asking for a boardwalk, just to wait a year until we get things figured out.”

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

Related Topics: CROW WING COUNTYCROW WING COUNTY BOARDGOVERNMENT AND POLITICSCENTERPIECE
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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