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Plan calls for 20-acre lots, road setbacks in state forests

In a move to protect land in state forests, Becker County may require new residential developments there to have 20-acre minimum lot sizes and long setbacks from public roads.

Existing lots would not be subject to the new regulations, which are designed for new developments.

The proposed Conservation Overlay District would also require that structures be screened by trees from public roads -- and they would prohibit new or expanded feedlots.

All structure setbacks would have to be 250 feet from all county road or state highway right of ways, and 300 feet from the centerline of any other public road.

"Cluster developments" would be an option, in which dwelling units could be grouped into a small area with small lots, with the rest of the property held in common ownership. Three dwelling units would be allowed on 30 acres, for example, with a common driveway and septic system.

The proposal comes from a county committee established to review zoning regulations.

If adopted by the county board, it would govern development on private land within the three state forests in Becker County -- White Earth State Forest, Two Inlets State Forest and Smokey Hills State Forest.

The proposal stems from the county's comprehensive plan, which calls for protecting state forests in various ways.

One recurring discussion among committee members concerns the state forests, "and how we want them to look in future years," according to a report from the committee. "Experience in other parts of the state and other states indicates that as prime lake frontage availability goes down, and the price goes up, the development trends turn to smaller lakes and forest lands. The DNR has identified 795 lakes in Becker County that are smaller than 100 acres, many of which are in the state forest areas and today are undeveloped."

The Conservation Overlay District is designed to preserve the "wilderness feel" of the state forests, while allowing reasonable development there.

Three-quarters of the land in state forests, or 35,000 acres, is publicly owned while the rest, about 10,000 acres, is privately owned.

In September, the county mailed out 1,000 notification letters to landowners in the state forests. It received 37 responses, all but a half dozen of them positive toward the idea, according to County Zoning Administrator Patricia Johnson.

The idea was laid out to about 40 people who attended an informational meeting Tuesday at the courthouse.

Gil Gigstead of rural Detroit Lakes said he "totally opposed it," since it involves more government regulation.

"This is communism," he said. "It's the same thing -- government telling the people what to do."

Frank Church of Bad Medicine Lake disagreed, saying the idea is more like democracy in action, with government acting on behalf of the people to protect resources for the greater good.

"This is a chance to protect public land," he told the committee. "It's a balance -- you can't be all development or all conservation. What you're proposing is not rocket science, it's not even radical, (since other communities have gone further.)"

Ray Vlasak, who said he owns 220 acres in White Earth State Forest, supported the proposal.

"I don't think the people of Becker County realize what they have to lose. They have a quality of life that is very exceptional. I don't think they realize what they stand to lose of they don't protect it."

A 20-acre minimum lot size is not that unusual, Johnson said. It is imposed by some Hubbard County townships, and other townships there impose a 40-acre minimum lot size, she said.

Becker County Commissioner Bob Bristlin spoke against the proposal.

"I can't see forcing these private landowners into that much of a change," he said. "Maybe the county should buy the land and turn it all into state forest if that's the way you want to go."

Under current county ordinance, the minimum lot size is one acre, Johnson said, and new developments are using that minimum lot size.

"There's one like that in the Smokey Hills -- it's like a city lot subdivision," she said.

Bristlin agreed that one acre is probably too small a minimum lot size, but he said 20 acres is too big. "We need a balance between one and 20, that's just my opinion."

Other commissioners that attended included Larry Knutson, who sits on the Planning Commission, and Barry Nelson. They didn't comment on the proposal.

Former Commissioner Carolyn Engebretson was also there, and she supported the idea.

"When you chop up everything into small little parcels, you limit the area where wildlife can live," she said.

Johnson said the committee put a lot of thought into the proposal.

"The intent behind it is to leave most of the land there in a natural state," she said. "With a 20 acre lot, they will build on one or two acres and leave the rest alone."

More informational hearings will be held to gather public feedback on the proposal, she said.