Townships declare zoning independence from Detroit Lakes

“You had plenty of chances to treat us good, and you haven’t done it -- that’s the bottom line,” one commissioner told a city official.

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Lakeview Township Supervisor Phil Hansen, left, talks with Becker County Zoning Administrator Kyle Vareberg after the township zoning action on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

While there wasn’t any tea being dumped overboard, that was sort of the atmosphere at the Becker County Board meeting Tuesday, May 4, when six townships surrounding Detroit Lakes declared independence from city subdivision rules.

Representatives from Audubon, Detroit, Erie, Burlington, Lakeview and Lake Eunice townships announced their support for ending Detroit Lakes’ longtime subdivision control in a two-mile radius around city limits.

The six townships and Becker County will form a joint powers zoning agreement, relying largely on the county zoning process.

Townships are angry about lack of subdivision control, park fees charged by the city to developers, and what they consider high-handed decisions by city zoning officials.

That anger spilled into the County Board meeting Tuesday, when County Commissioner Richard Vareberg exchanged words with Detroit Lakes Alderman Dan Josephson, who was in the audience.


“The city isn’t that big and bad,” Josephson said at the meeting. “We need to plan for orderly growth and development. We’re trying to plan things out for long term growth -- this is not a power grab.”

“You had plenty of chances to treat us good, and you haven’t done it -- that’s the bottom line,” Vareberg said, jabbing his finger in Josephson’s direction.

“Thanks for the ... attack,” Josephson muttered.

County Board Chairman Barry Nelson sought to calm things down.

“Whether we move forward with this or not, we need a partnership with the city,” he said. “A disagreement in one area doesn’t mean we can’t work together on everything else.”

“I completely agree on the need to work with the city,” said Lakeview Township Supervisor Phil Hansen. “I am in constant contact with (City Administrator) Kelcey Klemm whenever things come up that affect us both.”

“The townships will work with the city,” added Commissioner Larry Knutson. “This doesn’t have to be that big a deal.”

Opposing the joint powers idea was Commissioner Ben Grimsley, who noted that the city has exercised subdivision control over the two-mile radius around city limits for over 60 years.


The change would leave township residents in the two-mile zone in a gray area, unsure which zoning authority is legitimate and having to deal with litigation delays if the city sues to maintain its current authority, which Grimsley believes it will do, he said. To be on the safe side, residents of those townships should put their proposed subdivisions through both the city and new township process, he said.

“Every time the city wants to do something, the city shoves it down our throat,” said Detroit Township Supervisor Kevin Olson. That the city is even talking about suing townships to keep control over subdivision zoning “is the very attitude our constituents are so fed up with -- the city is almost right up there with God.”

Hansen said the change has been a long time coming.

“This has been going on for years,” he said. ”We don’t feel we should have to take orders from an entity that doesn’t represent us -- if we’re forced to go into a joint powers (arrangement), that’s what we’ll do.”

Grimsley argued that the county risks being dragged into township zoning enforcement actions, and that townships might unilaterally change the agreement, to the detriment of the county.

After some discussion, the board left the enforcement provision alone, with several commissioners noting that the county already does enforcement work in the townships.

But any changes made to the agreement now have to be “mutually agreeable or it’s null and void,” said Becker County Zoning Administrator Kyle Vareberg. And mutual staff reports will be done on conditional use permit requests. “We’re okay with that,” Hansen said on behalf of the townships.

The board voted 4-1 to approve the County and Township Joint Powers Agreement for Official Zoning Control, with Grimsley voting in dissent.


The move effectively takes final plat approval out of the city’s hands and gives it to the townships. The County Planning Commission will replace the Detroit Lakes Planning Commission in handling subdivision requests in the six townships.

But township boards will have the final say.

“Instead of the County Board approving the final plat, the townships will approve the final plat, otherwise everything else is the same,” said County Surveyor Roy Smith.

All six townships are expected to approve the joint powers resolution and adopt sections of the county zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan this month.

The five-page agreement allows townships to adopt regulations that are stricter than the county’s. The county fee schedule will apply, and developers will be responsible for the cost of mailing notification letters to neighbors.

“After the June meeting, provided everybody takes the proper steps at each township, we should be good to go,” Hansen said.


A map of the 2-mile extraterritorial zone around Detroit Lakes, marked by County Surveyor Roy Smith with pink arrows showing sites of land division controversy. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

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