Crosslake will seek injunction to halt ordinance violation
The Crosslake City Council voted Monday, July 14, to pursue injunctive relief against a property owner who has repeatedly violated a zoning ordinance that restricts the number of temporary structures allowed on a property.
According to a memo Crow Wing County Land Services Supervisor Chris Pence wrote to the council, planning and zoning staff contacted property owner Don Bordsen on Monday, July 7, following a complaint by a neighbor. Land Services Specialist Jon Kolstad told the council he observed four campers and two tents on the property, located on Happy Landing Road on the south end of Cross Lake.
A city ordinance governing temporary structures in the shoreland district allows a maximum of two temporary structures at one time on a property for no more than 14 total days with a principal structure. "Temporary structures" are defined as travel trailers, campers, tents or other structures that are not attached to an on-site sewer. These structures must meet required setbacks from the shoreline. In Crosslake, the standard setback is 75 feet.
Les Bordsen, son of the property owner, addressed the council Monday during the public forum following the council's decision to pursue legal action. He explained that the cabin on Cross Lake, which he described as "one of the last original cabins still in its original form," has been in his family since the early 1970s. For at least the last 35 years, they've held a family reunion on the Fourth of July weekend. As the family has grown, he said, they've purchased campers and tents to accommodate everyone.
"To just flat out say we no longer can celebrate with our family, to me, seems pretty harsh," he said. "We will abide by whatever you come up with. I'm not saying we won't pursue legal actions."
Kolstad informed the Bordsens of the violation on his site visit, and according to Pence's memo, "staff was told they (the property owners) were not going to comply."
Staff research on the issue revealed they had also sent Bordsen a letter April 7, 2013, addressing the same violation. The letter, drafted by former city planner Bryan Hargrave, included a copy of the ordinance and indicated Hargrave had discussed the issue with Bordsen before.
"I visited you last summer before the July 4 week and talked to you about what temporary structures are allowed on a parcel in the city. This is a follow-up letter enumerating what I told you then," the letter states.
City attorney Brad Person told the council that its options for addressing the situation included making changes to the ordinance, filing a lawsuit or seeking an injunction. He said other remedies available would not be applicable in his interpretation of the facts, given the temporary but repeated nature of the violation.
"Staff has tried to enforce it. There has been on-site visits. They just haven't worked. It's not like we ignored the problem," Person said. "In this case, it's clearly a violation."
Person added, "If another case with similar facts would present itself to you, you should do the same thing ... enforce that, too."
Council member Gary Heacox said he would not be in favor of changing the ordinance.
"Are you going to change the ordinance to fit the crime? You're either going to have it or not," he said.
Council member Mark Wessels said he felt there was no other option but to pursue a legal remedy. He noted the ordinance in question had "been around for a decade or more" and had "passed the test of time."
"Ultimately, it's not the city's job to be the playground referee," he said. "Let's get this court injunction, get that going."
Council member John Moengen said he felt the neighborly dispute was more of a civil matter and the issue before the council concerned the ordinance violation. However, he said, addressing the violation would not entirely solve the dispute.
"We obviously have the ability to do something, because they are in violation of an ordinance we have," he said. "You could comply with the ordinance and still be a nuisance to your neighbor."
Council member Steve Roe was not present at Monday's meeting.
Pence said in a phone interview Tuesday, July 15, that he thinks the ordinance needs clarity and the planning and zoning commission should spend time on it. He said despite language that appears to indicate it's possible to obtain a permit for more than two temporary structures, no such option exists as the law is currently written.
"There's nothing that says two (temporary structures) without a permit, or four with a permit," he said.
He said the ordinance was likely established more to prevent impact on neighbors than as a water quality measure, but impact on neighbors could still exist without an ordinance violation. He noted they could rent one big tent for their reunion, build a seven-room cabin or stay in hotels and visit the property during the day, and none of these scenarios would be in violation of the ordinance as written.
"What you're running into is the loophole scenario," he said.
Pence said there are no records of the city actively enforcing this ordinance with other property owners in the past.
Mark LaFon, who filed the July 7 complaint and whose property is directly to the east of Bordsen's, said he's informed the council, planning and zoning and the Crosslake Police Department of the violations for at least the last three years.
"The ... site becomes a campground each year with many more 'temporary structures' than allowed by city ordinance, some placed way within the setback zone along lakeshore," the complaint reads.
In a phone interview Tuesday, July 15, LaFon his main concern is the impact on the health of the lake water by so many people on a small piece of property.
"I'm a defender of the lake," he said. "The way I see it, they're 'peeing in my pool' every day."
He said the dispute first escalated around five years ago, when the neighbors mowed down plants he'd installed for shoreline restoration. He added that his father, however, who lived on the property before his death, had dealt with issues from the neighbors for 25 years.
"The poor people down there (in the bay) just cringed when they saw them coming for the Fourth of July," LaFon said. "Twenty-five years ago, when they were all younger, they used to set up a huge stereo."
LaFon also claimed in the July 7 complaint that someone on Bordsen's property threatened to kill his dog, and that it was "time to uphold the law."
He said the threat to his dog was what prompted him to dial 911 and to file the complaint to planning and zoning.
"When somebody threatens to kill my dog, I take it seriously," he said.
LaFon, who has been a member of the planning and zoning commission since Nov. 18, 2013, said his only concern is the Bordsens' violations of the law, which he said includes criminal threats and trespassing in addition to the ordinance violation.
"As long as they obey the laws, fine. It's when they start violating laws ... the law is there to control the people, not people controlling the laws," he said.
Les Bordsen denied anyone on the property made threats against LaFon's dog, and his testimony to the council outlined several incidents with "the neighbor to the East," as he referred to LaFon, described as "verbal exchanges and attacks which escalated very quickly to some cussing and swearing."
In a July 15 phone interview, Bordsen also said the lawn mowing issue that LaFon described as the catalyst for the ongoing conflict was an "honest mistake" made by a new in-law eager to pitch in.
"We apologized to him and that was not acceptable to him," he said.
Bordsen also said he could not recall LaFon's father, Leland, ever confronting the group about noise or loud music, and that he and his father, Don, were friends.
"I don't doubt that there was loud music played back in my teens, early 20s," he said. "But there was never any intent to be disrespectful or intimidating."
Bordsen said he and his family are concerned about LaFon's ties to city government in Crosslake and how that may swing the balance in his favor on this issue.
"We think he's got kind of a master plan to make sure we stop doing this family gathering, because for some reason, it bugs the heck out of him. We don't know why," he said. "There's nothing we do that sets it off. It's not like we're loud or noisy."
Bordsen said he's witnessed countless properties around the lake engaging in similar family gatherings with campers and tents, and if the city chooses to continue with its legal action, he and others in the family may canvass the area for these property owners to garner support for overturning the ordinance.
"I hope that the council can see that they need to make some decisions based upon the merits in what Crosslake stands for and what they have to offer," he said. "This just doesn't allow a family-friendly environment, and that's what Crosslake has always been about in the past."
He said until some sort of resolution is reached, his family members are not comfortable with using the property.
"Less and less people come up every year because they don't want to have this confrontation that tends to ruin these days," he said.
He said he would be open to working out the issue with his neighbor, but he doesn't feel like LaFon would be open to it. "There's just no history whatsoever that would substantiate me believing that there could be a conversation or a dialogue happening that way," he said.