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Crow Wing County sticks with shoreline boardwalk moratorium, loosens subdivision ban

The board established the moratorium in April to give staff time to study the issue over the next year in pursuit of more robust and clearer regulations amid apparent increased development pressure on marginal lakeshore properties. These properties abut shallow, marshy areas, complicating residents’ ability to access navigable waters via traditional docking systems.

The boardwalk at Milford Mine Memorial Park.
The boardwalk at the Milford Mine Memorial Park, seen Tuesday, July 12, 2022, spans two points of land at Milford and Foley lakes at the park.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Crow Wing County’s moratorium on boardwalk construction along shorelines stands unchanged after commissioners declined to adopt updates intended to narrow its focus.

Following a Tuesday, Aug. 9, public hearing — during which most speakers opposed the changes — a motion to adopt a majority of the staff-suggested language into the interim ordinance failed in a 2-3 vote, with commissioners Steve Barrows, Bill Brekken and Rosemary Franzen opposed.

The changes would have permitted construction to move forward on new shoreline boardwalks meeting certain criteria, intended to separate simpler, straightforward plans from elaborate walkway systems crisscrossing wetlands or encroaching on others’ property rights. Environmental services supervisor Jake Frie told the County Board in July the moratorium stymied pending proposals for simpler boardwalks, which he said weren’t the intended target of the ordinance.

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The board established the moratorium in April to give staff time to study the issue over the next year in pursuit of more robust and clearer regulations amid apparent increased development pressure on marginal lakeshore properties. These properties abut shallow, marshy areas, complicating residents’ ability to access navigable waters via traditional docking systems. Lots like these represent some of the few opportunities left for new home construction on recreational lakes in the county.

Representing the nonprofit Friends of Crow Wing County Lakes, Attorney Mark Severson — who previously opined the county’s light-handed approach on the boardwalk issue could lead the lakes area to resemble a miniature Key West — said Tuesday changing the moratorium created unnecessary legal vulnerabilities for the county.

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Narrowing the focus, Severson said, could give the appearance the moratorium was intended to target a specific developer. Two developments on Big Trout and Pelican lakes — owned by the same developer — featured examples of proposed boardwalk systems under scrutiny and served as the springboard for the board’s overall shoreline development conversation.

Severson questioned whether any rigorous study of the issue was yet underway, beyond internal county staff conversations.

“Moratoriums are designed to stop what may otherwise or eventually be deemed as acceptable development. The point of it is to allow for intelligent design in our zoning laws,” Severson said. “If we pass moratoriums with no effort other than what is done internally, we are not being serious as a County Board. Keep it as it is and use the draconian nature of the moratorium as motivation to work hard and exercise all required due diligence within the next year.

“You did the right thing in April by starting this process. Now start it and see it through.”

A man speaks at a microphone in the Crow Wing County boardroom.
Tony Coffey, president of the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association, speaks against proposed changes to county ordinances concerning lakeshore development during the Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, Crow Wing County Board meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Also speaking Tuesday were those associated with the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association, which opposed changes to the moratorium, and other water quality-related organizations. Those living near the areas impacted by current or proposed boardwalks presented their viewpoints to commissioners as well, raising concerns about negative effects on wildlife dependent on wetland habitat.

John Forney, president of the National Loon Center Foundation Board of Directors and chair of the Crosslakers water quality work group, said compromised lakes in southern Minnesota should serve as a warning for what could lie ahead.

“Increasing development pressures on remaining marginal riparian properties are squeezing out the last foot of land around our magnificent lakes,” Forney said. “The pressure will spoil the waters, turn them cloudy, weed-choked. The fish will no longer be abundant. That has happened already in our state.

“ … We have to draw a line someplace on how much we’re gonna allow to be developed. There is a level at which the lakes just can’t survive. So we just have to say no.”

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Jethro Carpenter, the developer behind the Trout and Pelican lakes projects facing blowback, defended the boardwalks he planned to build and noted they are the preferred and less invasive alternative, per the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, for crossing wetlands as opposed to filling or dredging. He questioned whether in defending the riparian rights of some, the county impinged the rights of others.

“It’s just a broader question — if you don’t allow people to have boardwalks, how do they gain access (to the lake)?” Carpenter said.

After the closure of the public hearing, Commissioner Doug Houge said while he appreciated everyone’s comments, he believed updating the moratorium would not have the impact about which speakers warned.

“There was really no concern or issues over the standard boardwalks and I guess, that said, we will continue the study for these larger boardwalks,” Houge said. “I’ve heard EAWs (environmental assessment worksheets) — that’s not off the table for some of these more extravagant boardwalks. But to deny a person access to their lake, to me, also creates a whole new issue. And with the revision that we’re talking, I think it’s a fair compromise.”

Houge further stated he thought the moratorium update should allow the simpler boardwalks to be constructed with permanent pilings, adding he believed seasonally removing and replacing the structures was more disruptive to wetlands.

Man speaks at lectern during Crow Wing County Board meeting
Jethro Carpenter, a developer whose shoreline boardwalk proposals prompted discussion that ultimately led to a moratorium on the practice in Crow Wing County, speaks during the Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, County Board meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Barrows said while he understood the concerns of those who’ve purchased property and are currently unable to access the lake, the purpose of the moratorium was to step back and study the issue as a whole.

“I still believe that taking a year to study this and then come back with all the facts, that that would give us the opportunity to really make that decision that we will make at that time,” Barrows said.

Franzen said she also believed the study was necessary.

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Commissioner Paul Koering made a motion to accept the changes to the moratorium while striking the portion disallowing boardwalks with permanent pilings. Houge seconded, but he and Koering were the only commissioners to support its passage.

Subdivisions change gains support

A second public hearing Tuesday allowed residents the chance to comment on changes to a recent ban instituted by the board on administrative subdivisions in the shoreland district.

Until the board’s April vote, developers could purchase land on lakes and create housing subdivisions administratively without undergoing the more stringent and public platting process requiring direct County Board approval.

Land services staff, however, proposed in July limiting the ban to properties in the shore impact zone, or those including shoreline. Properties within the shoreland district aren’t necessarily lakeshore properties but rather are in proximity to water bodies. In a request for board action, the department noted the ban resulted in turning away people wishing to subdivide properties that weren’t on the water.

A number of people again spoke in opposition to the change, pointing to a lack of transparency in the administrative process.

Tony Coffey, president of Whitefish Area Property Owners Association, said even if a property doesn’t include lakeshore, development there still impacts water quality.

“It’s important for transparency and for the health of these lakes that we do not allow administrative subdivisions within the shoreland district,” Coffey said.

Developer Carpenter again spoke in support of proposed changes, reiterating the administrative subdivisions he sought were legal at the time.

“I’m not sure that people really understand like, if you were to draw a 1,000(-foot) circle around every lake in Crow Wing County, there’s not a whole lot of land left, right?” Carpenter said. “So the people that are going to be able to utilize this administrative subdivision as you guys wrote it are the ones working right now. They’re not here to represent themselves because they don’t live on lakes, and they probably don’t find it necessary because they’re working.”

Koering pushed back on the notion the county lacked transparency and said he was concerned about the dearth of consideration of property rights. He said it seems some lake property owners want to keep others out.

“People buy property. Don’t they have any rights? Do they have any rights on that property at all? Or do we have all the citizens telling them what they can and can’t do on their property?” Koering said. “ … I understand that we have to have rules and regulations because there are just some people that will abuse it. But we gotta be careful about — you go down that road of taking away people’s rights, their property rights, their constitutional rights, you know, be careful about taking away people’s rights too much.”

Staff also proposed ordinances in general become effective immediately after board approval. The current 30-day window recently prompted the board to allow a number of pending applications for administrative subdivisions to move forward before the ban went into effect.

In a 4-1 vote with Brekken opposed, the board agreed to update the ban to the shoreland impact zone only and to do away with the 30-day window.

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 POLITICS
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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