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Wall stalled, but RV developer not sitting still

The developer of the River Hills RV park says he is jumping hurdles as they arise and he is determined to complete his 130-unit project.

Patrick Onstad bought the River Hills Golf Course several years ago and plans to build an RV park on land that includes the former driving range. The nine-hole public golf course will remain open, and the park will offer city sewer and water, cable TV, Internet service and lawn maintenance service to people living in "park models" which are technically RVs but look like small houses.

Onstad says a story in the Sunday Detroit Lakes Tribune was misleading in that a State Health Department requirement that each unit have its own 2,000-square-foot space will actually require little, if any, design adjustment.

"It's a non-issue," he said. "It was a non-issue when it made the Sunday paper ... We've always had the 2,000 square feet, it's just a matter of whether it was portrayed on the map submitted to the health department."

Onstad said he had verbal permission from a regional health department official to figure density requirements in the aggregate for his residential planned unit development, but a St. Paul official overruled her and required density to be figured per unit.

Since the project was already designed that way, it required just a few clicks of a computer mouse to show that on the map, Onstad said.

The Health Department, which regulates RV parks, also required that an engineering report be submitted for a partially built retaining wall on a hill overlooking the Pelican River.

That report has been completed by LHB Engineering of the Twin Cities and submitted to the Health Department, which has yet to take action on it, Onstad said.

Construction of the poured-concrete wall has been stopped pending a city building permit, which Onstad will request from the Detroit Lakes city council at some point in the future, he said.

With the engineer's input, the retaining wall, which ranges from 8 to 11 feet in height, will be well-anchored into the hillside. It will no longer require a "second tier" wall that would have been built on top of the first one, he added. "We changed the way we're tying it into the bank," he said.

The city has already annexed the land for the RV park and approved the plan, said Onstad, who has been working on the project for two years.

"Because I had a storm water retention plan permit and a land alteration permit, I felt that I could build a wall," he said. "It's been a $50,00 to $60,000 mistake, and every day we're delayed, it goes up."

The city building inspector refused to grant a building permit without an engineering report on the wall.

He was concerned because plans call for six RV units to be located on the hill overlooking the wall.

The retaining wall is needed to create a slope away from the river to control groundwater runoff, Onstad said.

If he had built the retaining wall out of modular blocks or boulders, as he had originally planned, no building permit would have been required, Onstad said.

"It's because it was built out of poured concrete," he added.

Onstad had hired a contractor, but not an engineer, to build the wall. Because the wall is less than half-finished, it's difficult to visualize, he said, but the plan always was to anchor the wall into the hillside.

The retaining wall was in the final overall plan that was approved by Wenck Engineers of St. Cloud, which reviews engineering plans for the Pelican River Watershed District, Onstad said.

"That wall was on the plans. If they didn't see it, is that my fault?" he asked.

"The wall has not always been there," Onstad added, "but it was in the final plan ... There have been a lot of changes in the plan.

"We went from 250 units to 175 to 130. Every change I've done with the plan has been for the good of the environment out here -- what we have now is much more environmentally conscious."

Those plans include an inland harbor and tramway to launch boats into the Pelican River, providing security for the boats and avoiding the necessity of the three large docks on the river originally proposed for the project, Onstad said.

He has a DNR permit for the tramway, which will be built next year by a Brainerd company that builds the tramways to protect sensitive shoreland areas, Onstad said.

The plans also include protective easements all along the Pelican River that are off-limits to development and will be administered by the watershed district.

There will also be a 40-foot by 120-foot golf clubhouse and park community center built near the Highway 59 entrance, with an indoor pool and recreation center. A 40-by-88 foot addition will complete the T-shaped building and will provide golf cart storage. The existing clubhouse will be turned into office space.

This is the first such project for Onstad, and while he has found the city to be generally friendly, he has run into trouble with the Department of Natural Resources, the watershed district and Lakeview Township, which hired an attorney to fight the plan.

In particular, Onstad has a bone to pick with DNR Area Hydrologist Bob Merritt, who Onstad believes is spearheading the opposition to his project through contacts in the watershed district and the health department.

"He's the one poking me with a sharp stick, and I'm poking back," Onstad said.

The feud grew so heated at one point that Onstad said he ordered Merritt to stay off his land, and when he later caught him inside the development taking photos of the retaining wall, blocked Merritt's vehicle by rolling back and forth in front of him with a truck while he called the sheriff's department to have him arrested for trespassing.

Merritt drove around the truck when Onstad stopped and got out to talk to a golf customer about why the exit onto Highway 59 was blocked.

"He escaped," Onstad said.

There is a trespassing complaint on file with the sheriff's office from Aug. 11. No charges resulted from the incident.

Merritt is out on medical leave until next month. His supervisor, Regional DNR hydrologist Larry Kramka of Bemidji, said he was unaware of the specific incident. It's not unusual for DNR officers to inspect construction sites that could impact lakes or rivers, he said.

Onstad said he never expected to have so much difficulty with the RV park. He said it was intended to provide a summer refuge to long-time campers displaced from a Long Lake resort.

"My goal was to keep 130 of those families from Ridgewood Resort in the area -- a lot of them had been here over 20 years," he said. "It's been a real battle. There are a lot of people in the county who don't think we need that kind of economic benefit to this area -- I think that's very shortsighted."

Onstad said he had hoped to have half the RV sites ready for sale by spring of next year, but because of delays now is aiming to have 50 sites ready.