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Without more regulations, will the Brainerd lakes area become the next Key West?

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 end of a dock in the water
Contributed
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BRAINERD — Crow Wing County commissioners are considering putting a temporary stop to some shoreline development in pursuit of more robust and clear regulations.

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.

Bill Brekken
Bill Brekken
Contributed

Commissioner Bill Brekken, who represents much of northern Crow Wing County, raised the issue in light of an apparent trend toward developing lakeshore previously left alone in favor of areas with more direct access to navigable waters. But 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’ve had a number of situations coming forward already this year that are looking at a boardwalk system that are going across wetlands and also running parallel to the lake that additional docking systems would be added to,” Brekken said. “We’re also seeing some riparian water that might be crossing other people’s riparian water areas.”

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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

A developer who owns two future residential subdivisions on Pelican Lake and Big Trout Lake seeks to build shared boardwalk systems from those lots on higher ground across wetlands and shallow areas. The boardwalks would lead to docks placed in deeper waters, allowing watercraft to moor.

A similar boardwalk system is already constructed in a shallow bay on the southern shore of Lower Whitefish Lake and faces potential litigation as a violation of the county’s surface water control ordinance, said Tim Houle, county administrator.

Documents show a proposed boardwalk on Pelican Lake
A proposed boardwalk near the shores of Pelican Lake would provide access for residents of a housing development to navigable waters. The County Board is considering a moratorium on this type of development to give consideration to more regulations.
Contributed / Crow Wing County

The Big Trout Lake development in particular faces public opposition from a number of nearby property owners along with the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association, which is rallying support to seek an amendment to the county’s land use ordinance to do away with administrative subdivisions on shoreland property. As written, the ordinance allows developers to subdivide parcels into no more than six residential lots without public notice or seeking approval of a plat by the County Board.

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The project will consist of regrading the intersection to accommodate left turn lanes and a new bituminous surface. Construction is planned to begin Monday, Aug. 22, and run through Sept. 9.

“The Administrative Subdivision process does not require public input and has allowed the developer to create six riparian lots (lake access lots) that would require docks to traverse the wetlands for access,” the association’s website states . “WAPOA has deep concerns about the adverse effects on the wetlands and the impact on water quality, loon nesting, and aquatic habitat in Big Trout Lake.”

While the property owner’s association appears to be focused on that aspect of the proposals, the board did not specifically discuss administrative subdivisions, instead focusing on what should be permitted in gaining access to lakes.

Attorney Mark Severson, who represents those concerned with the proposals on Pelican and Big Trout, told commissioners the county’s lack of specificity on what is allowed for alternative access to navigable waters opens it up to legal problems.

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“This is all about mitigation of litigation,” Severson said during the meeting. “It’s not a good situation to have a lot of lawsuits. Right now, honestly, the way the ordinance is laid out, I have some deep concerns that it’s probably too good for business in the legal field.”

Severson noted if regulations remain in their current form, Crow Wing County lakeshore will see irreversible changes in the future.

We’re talking about dramatic development of wetlands, and they were adequately described, massive boardwalks that if approved would basically look like Key West (in Florida) in a smaller version with boardwalks.
Mark Severson, attorney
An aerial overview shows the area proposed for development on Big Trout Lake
An aerial view shows property set to become a residential subdivision on Big Trout Lake in the Whitefish Chain. Wetland areas are visible along the lakeshore.
Contributed / Crow Wing County

“When I take on cases like this — I’ve been on the developer side, I’ve been on the objector side — I honestly try to assess is this a NIMBY, not in my backyard? Is this sour grapes? What’s the situation?” Severson said.

“And my honest assessment is these issues are bigger than that. We’re talking about dramatic development of wetlands, and they were adequately described, massive boardwalks that if approved would basically look like Key West (in Florida) in a smaller version with boardwalks.”

In a letter to commissioners distributed before the meeting, Severson noted the drastic differences between Crow Wing’s light-handed approach to alternative access lots with the approach of neighboring Cass County, which is home to a number of desirable recreational lakes including Gull and Leech lakes.

Cass County lays out several requirements associated with access 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.

Crow Wing County’s land use ordinance, by contrast, defines alternative access lots but provides no additional guidance or regulation.

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“If there are no changes and (alternative access lots) are approved as things currently are in the Ordinance, developers will buy up all swamps with viable access to a lake through an extensive boardwalk system,” the letter stated. “It would be economically stupid for anyone who is able to not buy up all sensitive wetlands and develop as an (alternative access lot).”

Brekken noted consideration of the moratorium is not an indictment against boardwalks themselves and the county generally supports them as a way to minimize impacts to wetlands. But with three jurisdictions affected by decisions made on alternative access lots — the county, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the sheriff’s office — along with potential encroachments on the riparian and property rights of neighbors, better oversight is needed.

Participating in the meeting remotely, Commissioner Steve Barrows said he agreed with the proposed moratorium.

“Those are the lots that are probably the majority now that aren’t developed in our county. So when they come across a wetland and they encroach on a neighbor’s property for their access, that’s where I get concerned about it,” Barrows said. “ … We should slow down and make sure we address this situation appropriately.”

Commissioner Paul Koering, also participating remotely, said he would go along with a moratorium but could not guarantee he will agree with the regulations developed during that time.

Ahead of the vote, Houle sought to drill down to the types of development to which a potential moratorium would apply: proposals encroaching on someone else’s property rights, proposals encroaching on someone else’s riparian rights and proposals including structures running parallel to the shoreland impact zone.

Chairman Doug Houge said he thought Houle’s assessment of the board’s wishes was accurate.

“Clearly we need to do something to have some type of guidelines or rules to look at these type of boardwalks,” Houge said. “Some of them are quite extreme.”

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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