In the ongoing dispute between about subdividing property just outside the Detroit Lakes city limits, the Minnesota Attorney General's Office favors the Becker County and township governments.
In response, the city of Detroit Lakes has stopped processing subdivision applications in the contested two-mile area outside the city limits, ceding that authority to the county and townships.
In a written opinion, the attorney general's office sided with Becker County and six townships surrounding Detroit Lakes, clarifying subdivision authority in the two-mile extra territorial zone that extends from the city limits.
The Detroit Lakes city attorney requested the attorney general's opinion in the spring, and that request was initially declined. However, due to recent developments with some of the townships creating their own planning commissions to implement their own subdivision controls, the state attorney general's office decided to issue a formal opinion in August.
"In summary, it's not favorable to the city," said Kelcey Klemm, city administrator for Detroit Lakes, during a meeting of the city's community development committee on Monday, Sept. 13. "We knew when we were asking for the AG opinion that the outcome could go either way … but what we were trying to do is avoid a lawsuit."
The dispute between the three governing entities centers around Detroit Lakes' subdivision controls outside the city through the Municipal Planning Act, which was passed by the state Legislature and adopted in 1965. The city claims the act gives them the power to approve plot splits and platting within two miles of city limits in order to plan future development and expansion of the city — a process Detroit Lakes has controlled for more than 50 years.
Citing a 1967 opinion from the state attorney general's office clarifying the statute, the city contended that since the neighboring townships hadn't enacted their own subdivision controls, then they must abide by the city's subdivision ordinances within two miles of the Detroit Lakes border and, plot splits and plats would need to be approved by the Detroit Lakes City Council.
However, in recent years, the townships have raised concerns with the city about parks fees, and other assessments involved in the splitting process. Township residents have complained they have no form of recourse against the city for decisions they don't agree with because they don't vote for any of the city's office holders.
"Where the townships were pretty adamant about this is, how can the city go two miles beyond their limit and impose fines on something where the landowner has nothing to say about it?," said Roy Smith, surveyor for Becker County. "That was the start of everything."
As a result, some of the townships have formed, or are planning on forming, there own planning commissions to handle their own lots splits and contracted with Becker County to administer the applications instead of Detroit Lakes.
Upon learning about the township's new process, the city has publicly floated the idea of challenging their subdivision authority within the two-mile zone in court, since they believed it violated the Municipal Planning Act and went against a 1967 state attorney general's opinion. They also asked the state Attorney General's Office to update its opinion to reflect the current environment, which they also believed would support their original 1967 and the city's subdivision authority.
However, since 1982, the definition of a municipality has changed, according to state statute.
In the new state attorney general's opinion, signed by Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Susan Gretz, it states: "The current definition of 'municipality' in the act includes 'any town' … therefore, the townships surrounding Detroit Lakes are authorized to adopt subdivision regulations."
She also writes: "Zoning authority, which also permits extension of city regulations into two miles of unincorporated territory, expressly provides that the city zoning rules are enforceable 'until the county or town board adopts a comprehensive zoning regulation which includes the area,'" according to state statute.
Which means, as soon as the townships enact their own subdivision controls, they will supersede the city's subdivision authority within two-miles of the border with Detroit Lakes.
As a result of the new opinion, the Detroit Lakes City Council directed staff members to stop processing subdivision applications within the two-mile zone at their most recent meeting on Sept. 14 and allow the county to administer the new subdivisions controls with townships.
"After discussing this at the Community Development Committee yesterday, we feel that it's the recommendation to direct staff to stop processing the applications for the two-mile extra territorial based on the (state) attorney general's opinion that came back," said Matt Boeke, alderman third ward and chair of the community development committee.
If tensions over the issue persist, any of the governing entities could request a joint planning board made up of members of all three governing bodies to process subdivision and zoning controls within the two-mile zone; however, the city has been reluctant to start the process since they will most likely be out voted by the townships and the county on any conflicts.
"I think the city could see that, if they join in (a joint planning board), what's in it for them?" said Roy Smith. "From my understanding, the townships are going to contact the city on anything close to the city. It's not going to be a closed door and they are going to cooperate with the city."
Smith added the major change in going forward with their own subdivision process with the townships will be the township's ability to say yes, or no, to suggestions made by the city, instead of the other way around.
The state attorney general's opinion also said the state Legislature or an "intervening authority" could provide guidance to clear up the issue, but, in absence of that guidance, "after a town adopts its own subdivision regulations, the city’s regulations will not be applicable to the subject area."