County cites water quality, lack of need in Driftwood decision: Concerned residents unconvinced fight is over
Tony Coffey and Tom Watson don't believe the fight is over, despite a decision by Crow Wing County commissioners to stop a resort redevelopment proposal.
The Whitefish Area Property Owners Association board members are breathing a sigh of relief after the county board voted at the Tuesday, June 11, meeting to approve the findings of fact supporting its recent decision to deny a land use map amendment that would have allowed the redevelopment of the former Driftwood Resort.
"The concern was obviously about water quality and the run-off, and were they adequately addressing the issues of the water run-off from the roofs and that kind of thing," said Coffey, association president.
The findings of fact included a determination the reclassification of the Ideal Township property is not in accordance with the county's comprehensive plan, which encourages the county to consider the effects on water quality of various activities.
Furthermore, the proposed development, "because of the density and intensity of uses, has significant potential to degrade the water quality of the lake," and the reclassification was not warranted due to changed land use circumstances.
The Crow Wing County Planning Commission/Board of Adjustment voted unanimously May 16 to recommend the county board approve the proposed zoning change from shoreland district back to waterfront commercial.
"There is some legitimate concern about whether the planning commission really took into account what the people of the area were actually saying to them," Coffey said.
But the board did not vote with the commission. The county land services department received over 70 comments from concerned citizens and agencies like the state Department of Natural Resources, the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District and the property owners association.
"I think there's a sense of relief now, but the unknown is what will the developer Tom Steffens do at this point, like whether he will reapply ... so there's ongoing concerns about that total property and what the future plans for that property would be," Coffey said Wednesday.
The most recent proposal to redevelop the former Driftwood Resort property in Ideal Township on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes included 22 cabins, a maintenance building, a clubhouse, a lodge and a common lot. The development would be on 7.3 acres of the original 40 acres of the Driftwood Resort property. Driftwood Resort's buildings were mostly on that same 7 acres.
"The plan for the resort, what they wanted to do, actually exceeded what the county ordinances would allow for, so they wanted a number of variances ... taking old homes on the shore and increasing the size of those substantially," Coffey said.
Steffens told the planning commission eliminating the existing cabins around the shoreline and moving buildings back to comply with setback rules was considered, but that would result in the loss of white and red pines that exist, so a plan was devised to renovate the existing cabins.
"The thing that some of us have been working very hard to get people to try and understand is water quality isn't a static circumstance in Crow Wing County or most lakes in central Minnesota," Watson said. "Water quality is deteriorating."
Variance requests included varying ordinary high water setbacks for cabins 1 through 9 and for various additions and second story additions ranging from 133 to 721 square feet along with decks to those cabins.
"It's reassuring that the local units of government—in this case the county board with two new commissioners, obviously one representing this district—found a reason based on the negative impact on water quality to vote against that matter," said Watson, past property owners association president. "I can tell you water quality on these lakes (that the association tests) is not improving; we don't have many lakes where water quality is improving."
In its findings of fact document, Crow Wing County also pointed to the availability of other vacation rentals as a reason to deny the land use amendment.
"This was originally a resort and was converted to individual residential properties
precisely because there is an abundance of vacation rental properties in Crow Wing
County. We see no shortage of those opportunities and therefore do not see a shortage
of that property type with those allowed uses," according to county officials.
The document went on to state the lakefront property has not been a resort for a number of years, and the character of the neighborhood changed to being comprised largely of single-family homes.
"Changing the classification back at this time would be detrimental to the safety of the township road, would impair property values and water quality and is, therefore, not in the best interests of the public's health, safety and welfare," according to county officials.
Driftwood Resort operated until 2009 when it was zoned waterfront commercial, and the operators requested a land use map amendment in 2009 to change the zoning to shoreland district, according to Land Services Director Gary Griffin.
"It's been a while since the county board has actually considered water quality on a land use matter, certainly of this magnitude, and this is a fairly significant one," Watson said Wednesday.
The late Ted and Sue Leagjeld operated Driftwood Resort on Upper Whitefish Lake for 50 years, from 1959 to 2009. According to the Echo Journal, the Leagjelds had hoped to keep the property as a resort, but did sell some land as residential lots.
"Remember, this was a resort that was on, like, 40 acres of property, and now they want to reconstruct some of the same features on, I think, a little over 7 acres," Watson said.
Among other items, the developer sought 29% impervious surface versus the allowed 25% and 32 mooring slips versus the allowed 21 following the May 16 planning commission meeting.
"I don't think that this is over," Watson said. "On the planning commission agenda for Crow Wing County on June 20, I noticed there is a matter on there from one of the sons of the Leagjeld family, and he wants to have certain parts of the original 40-acre resort site rezoned into waterfront commercial also."
After lengthy discussion and hearing from almost a dozen audience members at an earlier planning commission meeting, the commission tabled any decisions until members could visit the property after winter. The commission then made its May 16 recommendation to the board.
"I've looked at what the son is proposing," Watson said of the June 20 planning commission agenda. "It's not at all like what was turned down but you never say die on this stuff."