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Board tackles controversial developments

Lakeshore zoning issues brought an overflow crowd into the Becker County Commissioners room in the courthouse Tuesday, as the board looked at three controversial projects.

Lake Maud development

After nearly an hour of discussion, commissioners agreed -- many reluctantly -- to require an environmental assessment worksheet for a lakeshore residential development called The Woods on Lake Maud.

Developer Brad Solheim had been working with the county's environmental assessment worksheet committee and had followed many of the panel's recommendations, including developing the plat as a MURD (Shoreland Multi-Unit Residential Development) rather than a traditional lot-and-block development.

But after he left the committee's fold and obtained two variances from the county Board of Adjustment, the lakeshore association sued the county and neighbors petitioned to require an environmental assessment worksheet.

The variances allowed him to put in 16 dock slips instead of eight and to build 100 feet from the lake instead of 150 feet.

"There aren't any (legitimate environmental) issues," Solheim told the board. "The issue is politics. You can take the easy way or the right way... Basically, you've got two choices today: the EAW Committee, which recommends more work on it, or ours, which we believe is the correct choice."

The opposition is mostly concerned about docks and boat traffic, he said.

"The boat slips are 99 percent of the issue -- let's not kid ourselves," he said. "It's not an environmental issue. Our opponents filed an appeal and an EAW petition hoping to delay us, harass us and make it as expensive as possible..."

Neighbors petitioned for an EAW out of concern for the impacts the variances would have on shoreland, and out of concern for the water quality of Lake Maud, said petitioners' representative Bill Sherlin.

"We waited to file the petition because we've been involved in the process since January and we thought it was taking the proper course (under the guidance of the EAW committee). Once the Board of Adjustment granted the variances... there are serious issues, including shoreline issues, that arise only as a result of the variances granted," he said. "We thought the issues were being addressed internally, (but) the end result of this process has left us with too many environmental questions we didn't have answers to."

Commissioner Bob Bristlin said that anyone developing lakeshore should proceed with an environmental assessment worksheet as a matter of course, because it's going to be required at some stage of the zoning procedure.

If an EAW had been done early on, the developer would not be facing delays now, he added.

Commissioner Barry Nelson criticized the EAW Committee for overstepping its bounds.

"That committee -- it's not their role to give you a plan," he told Solheim. "I think you've been caught in a bad scenario -- you and us."

Nelson made two motions to require an EAW, one that died for lack of a second and one that was ultimately approved unanimously.

Eagle Lake campground

The board decided to reverse its earlier requirement for an environmental impact statement for Blue's Valley Campground on Eagle Lake near Frazee.

An environmental impact statement is much more stringent -- and expensive -- than an environmental assessment worksheet.

An EAW is quite comprehensive in Becker County and usually costs from $8,000 to $10,000, according to zoning administrator Patty Johnson.

Environmental impact statements are much more expensive and are usually required only for large feedlots or industrial developments, not for a 54-unit campground, noted County Board Chairwoman Karen Mulari.

The campground plan has been revamped several times, and the units will now be located well back from the lake.

"The DNR now says the plan will be an improvement over current (agricultural) use," said Brant Beeson, attorney for the developer, Bruce Jacobs.

Cattle now erode the shoreline and wallow in the lake, so a campground would be an improvement, he added.

The Eagle Lake Group, made up of residents and property owners, does not agree. In a comprehensive 11-page letter to the board, the group noted that a 54-unit campground will more than double the current lake occupancy of 50, and listed a host of concerns, from erosion and sedimentation to water surface use and cumulative impacts.

"The reasons for ordering the EIS have not gone away," said Eagle Lake Group representative Joy Penney. "The people on this lake want you to do the right thing by the environment. We ask you to uphold the recommendations of your technical panel."

Beeson said the development has been in the works since May 2004, and yet has not received a hearing before the county planning commission.

Bristlin spoke strongly against requiring an EIS. "I don't believe in ordering an EIS unless absolutely necessary, especially before it's even gone to the planning and zoning committee," he said.

Commissioner Larry Knutson agreed.

"This (development) is just starting our process with planning and zoning," he said. "It may be denied, but the developer deserves his chance (to go before the planning commission)."

The board unanimously agreed to drop the requirement for an EIS.

Tea Cracker Lake

In the third case, developer Larry Nygaard asked the board to table action on a recommended EIS for Tea Cracker Cove residential subdivision, an 11-lot development on Tea Cracker Lake, which is essentially a wilderness lake -- located below Ice Cracking Lake -- with its western half in the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.