NISSWA-A Crow Wing County Board vote reaffirming its decision to include four tracts of tax-forfeited property in Nisswa in Friday's public land sale auction has residents who love the land frustrated.

At the board meeting Tuesday, June 25, a motion to postpone sale of those properties pending additional research failed 2-3. The city of Nisswa objected to the reclassification and sale of the tracts more than two years ago, and because of that objection the parcels were some of those included in a public hearing in May to determine whether they'd be up for sale.

Three of the four tracts in question account for 10.31 acres on the east side of Camp Lincoln Road, across the street from Lake Hubert. The fourth is a 2.21-acre piece on Fish Trap Lake. All of the tracts are zoned as public recreation under the city of Nisswa's zoning ordinance.

Commissioner Bill Brekken, who represents the city as part of his district on the Crow Wing County Board, made the request to add the issue to Tuesday's agenda during the meeting. With the land sale impending, Brekken asked his fellow commissioners to discuss the tracts once again after board members were contacted by residents concerned about the 10-acre stretch nestled between Hole-in-the-Day Lake and Camp Lincoln Road. Most of the parcels were forfeited into county ownership between 1937-57.

Commissioner Paul Koering wondered why no one attended the May public hearing concerning the parcels if there were objections and pointed to the value of getting the property back onto county tax rolls. Koering said he didn't understand why these concerns came up after the hearing.

"These are nice lots, why would we not put them back on the tax rolls?" Koering said. "It doesn't make any reasonable sense whatsoever. We got that letter of 20 people that live right around there. That's their playground, so they don't want anybody else. 'Stay away from me.' That's what's happening."

Land Services Director Gary Griffin explained to commissioners because of the zoning on the property, building on those tracts would not be permitted while they're designated as public recreation. This, he said, would be made clear to any potential buyers of the tracts.

County Administrator Tim Houle told commissioners one course of action they could take would be to offer the tracts to the city of Nisswa to purchase. As a public entity, the city could buy the land at a price below market value-even $1. Koering added the concerned residents could band together themselves to buy the property if they wished to protect it.

Brekken made a motion to pull the tracts pending further investigation and Commissioner Steve Barrows seconded, noting recent staffing changes at the city of Nisswa may have led to confusion concerning the city council's previous assertion it disapproved of the county's intentions to sell. Koering, Chairwoman Rosemary Franzen and Commissioner Doug Houge voted against the motion.

A scenic route into wilderness

Don and Mickie Deline are two of the Camp Lincoln Road residents who are passionate about preserving the land across the street from their Lake Hubert property. Don Deline spoke publicly on behalf of the property at a 2017 Nisswa City Council meeting, when the council first discussed the county's desire to reclassify it for potential sale.

Don Deline's been vacationing on Lake Hubert since 1946, when his grandmother purchased a lake lot. The 76-year-old said many of his neighbors have similar lineage associated with their lake properties, and they've long enjoyed the quiet, natural setting Camp Lincoln Road affords them. It's a designated scenic route, and tall pines hug the road's edges along the stretch from County Highway 13 to Nashway Road. It's home to Camp Lincoln, a boys summer camp that's more than a century old.

Deline said he thinks the property should become a conservatory of some kind, given its proximity to Hole-in-the-Day Lake and its longstanding history as a natural environment used by migrating wildlife and enjoyed by neighbors and visitors. He said in just two days, he was able to collect 43 signatures from people who live nearby who agreed the property should remain wild. Given more time, he said, he's confident he could've collected more.

"If we keep taking some of the beautiful places we've got here in Minnesota and turning them into residential districts, people aren't going to visit the lake country up here," Deline said Tuesday. "They can see the same thing in Edina and they can go farther north to Lake of the Woods. They'll skip right past us."

A short walk north of Deline's property, a small trail one could easily miss leads into the forested property. A nearby sign designates the area as a wildlife preserve on Hole-in-the-Day Lake, noting use of firearms, fishing, wild rice harvesting and motorized watercraft use are not permitted by city ordinance.

While hiking the trail Tuesday, Deline stopped to admire the beauty while sharing memories of his own childhood exploring the area along with generations of campers from Camp Lincoln and nearby Camp Lake Hubert-the girls' counterpart-who rode horses and mountain bikes through the woods.

Sam Cote, director emeritus of the camps, confirmed the property's been a part of campers' experiences for many years. He said he encourages campers' parents to arrive at the camp from the south end of the road because of its natural beauty, including that stretch of property.

"It gives them the impression that they're actually going into the wilderness," Cote said by phone Wednesday.

The path to the sale

With the outpouring of admiration for this property, why didn't anyone share these thoughts in front of the county board?

The answer appears to be a combination of communication errors, city staff changes and general confusion-all leading to the conclusion the properties would go up for auction Friday.

The county first informed the city of Nisswa of its intentions to classify the property for sale in early 2017. At the time, the city council voted to disapprove of the county's plan, and the tracts were pulled from the 2017 land sale because of this objection, according to Houle, county administrator.

In the meantime, Crow Wing County Land Services implemented a general strategy to sell off tax-forfeited parcels isolated from larger swaths of county forestland in an attempt to ease its management burden and increase the taxpayer base. It also established a policy of hosting a public hearing in response to objections, rather than immediately removing the property from the sale.

The Camp Lincoln Road tracts were again included on the potential sale list, and although the city of Nisswa did not issue a new objection, they were included as those disputed in the 2019 land sale public hearing.

Wednesday, Nisswa City Administrator Jenny Max said she was told the properties would be part of the hearing before it occurred May 14, but she was unaware of the previous saga concerning the land at the time. The city also received mail notification sometime earlier in the spring, she said. Max became city administrator after the council issued its objection, and the city is on its second planning and zoning administrator since that date.

As a result of this lack of history, she said, no one from the city attended the public hearing to voice concerns.

Nisswa's 2017 letter was not included in any information presented to Crow Wing County commissioners when they made their decision to move forward with the sale. Houle said Wednesday in his estimation the letter should've been included, and it revealed a flaw in the process he'd like to see fixed in the future.

"I don't think this is a failure to notify. This is unfortunate communication that did not result in the outcome the city would prefer," Houle said. "I think we can do better, so we will. I also think it's a pretty obscure flaw."

All of those who attended the public hearing on behalf of their parcel of interest got the answer they wanted from the county board-removal from the land sale. After the hearing, Max learned more about the matter and forwarded the original letter along with reiteration of the city's objections. That, combined with a packet of information compiled by Deline on behalf of his neighbors, prompted Tuesday's discussion.

Deline said he was angered by the notification process. He said he and others requested to be notified by the county about any movement on this property, although Houle said the county had no record of this request. Deline also said as a taxpayer, he felt dismissed by Koering's comments, particularly his assumption the neighbors could afford to purchase property for the sake of preserving it.

"I spent 26 years on active duty with the U.S. Army traveling all over the world. When my savings run out (in five years), I'm going to lose my cabin on this lake," Deline said. "I'm not particularly alone on that situation. There are a lot of us. The place next to mine is a tar paper shack. ... This is why we elect people to be our representatives."

The fact the land is currently zoned in a manner that wouldn't allow building doesn't reassure Deline, who said new city council members and the right proposal could flip the city's promise to preserve it as public recreation land on its head.

Cote-whose family owns the camps, along with other notable properties in the area, including Grand View Lodge-said he and his wife are willing to financially contribute to an effort to conserve the property. He said ideally he'd like to see the land deeded to a public entity to manage, although the city of Nisswa has indicated it isn't interested in owning the land permanently.

The future of the property remains to be seen as it goes up for sale 10 a.m. Friday in meeting rooms 1 and 2 in the land services building, 322 Laurel St., Brainerd. Max and Cote both said they plan to attend the sale, where the tracts will be available to purchase at the price originally set by the county board-likely much higher than they would be, if the non-buildable zoning were taken into account.

"I'm hoping we (Nisswa and Crow Wing County) can work together to achieve the same goal ultimately," Max said. "We just want some clarity. That's what the residents would have liked to see, was take a step back and get some clarity. ... I feel positive that we'll come to a good outcome."

Houle said if the land doesn't sell Friday, the county will likely work with the city in an effort to craft a solution amenable to all those involved.