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Plan will pave way for new ATV trails on county land

Work is nearly completed on the draft version of the Becker County Recreation Plan -- which will provide a template for making changes to the existing trails system.

Once the recreation plan is complete -- and there will be two public meetings yet this year, prior to county board approval of the plan -- a process will be in place to make changes to the trails system, and handle other recreational issues that arise.

Trails on county-managed land are open unless posted closed, said County Administrator Brian Berg.

"The hot button issue, of course, is ATV trails," said Berg. If a group wants to build a new ATV trail, or another group wants to build a horse trail, for example, there will be a process in place similar to the planning and zoning process for new construction.

In the same vein, another group might request that an ATV trail be closed because it is damaging wetlands or lakeshore. The process would handle that as well.

A county panel will review requests, inspect the site, and determine if the request meets the letter of the law. The panel will recommend denial or approval, and if it's approval, whether conditions should be required prior to construction.

As with planning and zoning issues, the county board will make the final decision.

Work is still underway on the draft -- a committee meets from 10 a.m. to noon every Thursday at the courthouse -- and county commissioners have yet to decide the governing logistics of the process.

Ideally, Berg said, the process will be linked to the county's planning and zoning system. That would allow it to tap into resources such as a technical advisory panel and the Becker Soil and Water Conservation District.

"We've got the template pretty much laid out," Berg said. "Either we use planning and zoning or we model it after planning and zoning."

That will help ensure that neighbors and those with a vested interest are notified about a proposed trail or other project, and have the opportunity to be heard at a public hearing.

The idea for a county recreational plan started May 12, 2009, when the county "opted out" of land classification for state forest land.

"Quite a few people at that meeting said the county needs a rec plan," Berg said. That was also something the county parks and recreation board and Land Manager Chip Lohmeier had wanted for several years, he added.

The county board appears split on whether the county natural resources department should be part of the new system or kept separate from it.

Either way, county-proposed trails and recreational developments will go through the new planning and zoning process, Berg said.

Writing a recreational plan for the county has been a long, in-depth process, similar to designing a county comprehensive plan, and counties often hire a consulting firm to do the work -- to the tune of $50,000 to $80,000, Berg said.

"We haven't had the money to hire it done," he said, so the county board decided the county would do it internally, with Berg facilitating the process.

The committee, made up of Berg and seven county department heads, has held public meetings and met with various recreational groups. And it has dug in and done a lot of research.

The draft plan is essentially finished. It is 28 pages, with appendixes that make it 78 pages long.

It lists 18 recreational uses, from hunting to jogging to off-road riding to bird-watching and berry picking, now seen on county-managed land.

And it inventories county and city resources, including primitive lake accesses, picnic areas, parks, swimming areas and trails.