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WE Fest campground permit passed just in time for festival opening

Though clearly unhappy at the circumstances under which they were being asked to do so, the Becker County Board acted Tuesday to approve a conditional use permit amendment that will allow for up to 149 extra campsites to accommodate WE Fest campers.

The campsites were added this year, after Festivals and Concert Events, Inc., signed a multi-year lease with Detroit Lakes resident Sherlene Williams for the use of her 6½-acre property adjacent to the existing Oat Field campground. However, under the terms of Williams’ existing conditional use permit with the county, her property was to be used for day parking only.

At a joint meeting of the Becker County Planning & Zoning Commission and Becker County Board on Tuesday, a public hearing was held to decide the fate of the new camping area. Williams, along with FACE, Inc., chief operating officer Bob Bliss, spoke before the joint board at the start of the hearing.

As Bliss noted, they had been under the impression that FACE’s conditional use permit, which covered the use of its existing campgrounds for both camping and parking, would apply to the leased property as well. He noted that the campsites had been sold to WE Fest ticket holders on that basis, and apologized to the board members for the mix-up.

When Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson questioned Bliss about whether switching the property’s use from parking to camping would create a parking shortage, Bliss responded, “Our parking lots don’t get full.” This is, in large part, due to the fact that the WE Fest shuttle, which ferries festival-goers between the Becker County Fairgrounds in Detroit Lakes and the WE Fest site at the Soo Pass Ranch, has led to a lesser need for on-site parking, Bliss added. “The parking situation is much better than it was 10 years ago,” Nelson acknowledged.

In response to a question from a commission member, County Sheriff Kelly Shannon noted that having the extra camping area would not create any additional workload or safety issues for his officers. In fact, he noted, the decision to close off direct access to Williams’ property and have campers enter the area through the main Oat Field entrance — making Williams’ access into an additional emergency exit instead — actually made things “a little easier” for the deputies.

“I’m not saying there was any wrongdoing here,” said Planning & Zoning Commission member Jim Bruflodt, “but the word ‘camping’ is not anywhere in (Williams’ conditional use permit).” And yet, he added, FACE signed a five-year lease with Williams without making sure that the necessary permits were in place. “Did we just wake up?” he asked, then added, “Where do we go from here? This board is stuck between a rock and a hard place. This is a real tough decision for us… it could be a real black eye for the county.”

Bruflodt also noted that if the permit request had come before Planning & Zoning in a timely manner, “there’s no question” that it would have been approved. However, he said, the way in which the situation was handled “leaves a sour taste in my mouth.”

While at least one Planning & Zoning Commission member did suggest denying the permit, in the end, both the commission and the county board opted to approve it. “To have all these people coming into town, thinking they had a place to camp (only to discover otherwise)… that would have been pretty unfair,” said County Board Chair Don Skarie. The permit amendment was approved, allowing for up to 149 camping sites to be added, with each campsite to have 1,000 square feet of space.

FACE, Inc., Vice President John Gourley said Tuesday afternoon that the new camping area “is in such a natural spot, we probably should have thought of (adding it) before. It looks like a natural addition to our property.” Gourley also noted that, with the festival holding its official kickoff party tonight (Wednesday), available camping on-site has become extremely limited, as have show tickets. “As of this morning (Tuesday), we’ve still got a few spaces left for camping, and a few show tickets remaining in general admission, but it’s going to be a full show,” he added.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

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