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Airport, lakes, tax-forfeited land topics at forum

Becker County Commissioner Bob Bristlin came out strongly for a county building code and said the city of Detroit Lakes should be more proactive in protecting the environment, while challenger John Bellefeuille talked up his experience as a township supervisor and member of the Long Lake Association Thursday evening at a candidate's forum in Detroit Lakes.

The two fielded a number of environment-related questions, but there was not a whole lot of disagreement going on between them, as the only two participants in the forum sponsored by the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations, which represents nearly 3,000 lakeshore property owners.

Some highlights of the forum:

Both candidates have issues with expanding the city-county airport, which would require mitigating a large wetland on airport property.

Bristlin flat-out said the airport should be moved.

"There are better places for it. I've seen other places where they've moved their airport -- Fergus Falls has put it in the country ... in 10 years we'll probably be moving it anyway, so let's start looking further than 10 years out."

Bellefeuille, a township supervisor for Detroit Township, said there are safety concerns for Long Lake residents with bigger jets landing on a longer runway. "I'm not so sure the airport shouldn't be moved," he said.

Asked what would be involved in implementing a county building code, Bellefeuille said it seems like it would just be a matter of doing it.

Bristlin agreed, but said politically, it's not so easy, since he is the only supporter of the idea on the county board, and that all five commissioners, or at least a majority of three, would have to vote for it.

The county would simply adopt the state building code and hire a building inspector, Bristlin said. The county now issues site permits, not building permits, and it would be a good idea for the county to ensure that buildings are constructed properly through a building inspector who took a common sense approach.

The hitch politically is that the code requires licensed contractors for construction work. That may protect home-buyers, but it's not a popular idea among a lot of handy rural residents.

Asked if they favor ordinance changes to protect natural environment lakes, Bristlin said he favors increasing minimum lot sizes and encouraging conservation subdivisions rather than lot-block subdivisions.

Bellefeuille said "every lake is a little different," and it depends on the development: Some are well-designed and some just don't work right. In his role as township supervisor, Bellefeuille recently received help from Bristlin in his role as a commissioner in dealing with a problem lakeshore development, Bellefeuille said.

Asked about when an environmental assessment worksheet should be required for a multi-unit lakeshore development, Bellefeuille said he would support requiring an EAW for a proposed development with 10 or more units.

"An EIS (environmental impact statement) is more extensive and costly, if we have to have those for everyone, it will scare off development," he said.

Bristlin, a construction contractor, said he doesn't do lakeshore projects, but if he did he would always do an EAW as part of the process.

"Eventually you're going to end up doing one anyway; if not, everyone will think you should have. It's not that expensive -- every project on a lake should have one."

An EIS, however, should almost never be required, he added, unless a developer "is not willing to mitigate" wetland losses, lake runoff problems and other environmental issues.

Neither candidates was wild about the idea of establishing local assessment districts or increasing the county tax levy to raise money to control or prevent invasive plants and animals (like zebra mussels or Eurasian milfoil) in area lakes.

A survey of COLA members showed that to be the No. 1 concern.

"The state should be funding that under the Clean Water Legacy Act," Bristlin said simply.

The best approach might be to empower lake associations to levy the money, and find some way to tax others who use the lakes, Bellefeuille said.

"I've seen some of these exotic species starting to choke the lakes ... I'm not sure a county-wide assessment is the right approach," he said. "It's not fair to farmers and others who don't benefit from tourism to levy on them."

Asked whether they favor establishment of conservation overlay districts for wilderness protection in state forests, Bristlin said he does not.

"I don't see any problem with the way it is now," he said.

Bellefeuille said he has spent "a great deal of time researching this, and it's hard to take a stand one way or the other. Is it government's place to tell people how to use their land?" If elected, he said he would give it more study "and try to make the best decision on it."

Asked if Detroit Lakes and the county should do a better job of working together on zoning issues, Bellefeuille said he has found both the city and county good to work with. "I think both are sufficient," he said.

The city should do a much better job of planning within two miles of city limits, Bristlin said.

"The city should have a plan -- what is your city going to look like? ... You don't just let people come along and plat commercial here and agriculture there. You have to look to the future. In zoning, you can't just look toward tomorrow," he said.

If the city used a technical panel of zoning experts like the county does, "maybe you wouldn't have a big concrete wall down on the (Pelican) river," Bristlin continued, referring to the River Hills RV Park development.

When it comes to tax-forfeited property in Becker County, Bristlin said there is 98,000 acres, assessed at $117 million. He favors selling about half of it and using the money to improve the rest with hiking, biking, horse and perhaps ATV trails.

"It should be something used by everyone," not just those who live nearby, he said.

Bellefeuille said he would like to see the county keep all tax-forfeited land that has public access.

"If it's totally landlocked, I would not oppose selling it to bring in additional tax revenues to the county," he said.

Sharon Sinclair moderated the forum at the community and technical college, which was attended by 20-30 people, including commissioners and candidates in other local races.