Business owners planning to build storage condominiums in Lake Edward Township are set to appear for the third time before Crow Wing County’s planning commission Thursday, Oct. 22, and it won’t be without dissent.

Seeking a variance to reduce lot sizes and the commission’s recommendation for approval of a preliminary plat, Ryan Johnson and John Sterne of RJ JS Properties said Tuesday the 80-unit facility they plan to build on County Road 118 will fill a need and blend in with the surrounding residential area.

“Our thought is to develop about 25% of the parcel because we need obviously quite a bit of green space, which is certainly important to keep that ‘up north’ feel, if you will, and keep it so it fits into the area,” Sterne said by phone. “The plan was to build some — for lack of a better term — storage condominiums: nice looking buildings that people could put their stuff in and get it out of the front yard so the neighbors wouldn’t have to look at it. With so many RVs and lakes and trailers and things up in that part of the country, we thought we could provide a nice looking piece of property.”

“For people to store boats and recreational toys that they use to enjoy the recreational environment,” Johnson added during the conference call.

But a vocal group of neighbors surrounding the 20-acre property registered strong opposition to the plans, citing concerns about the safety and welfare of the neighborhood near Pelican Beach and the potential for increased traffic on the county road. They’ve also raised questions over the approval process. This included a petition containing approximately 45 names along with efforts to engage in the appeals process.

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A photo taken during winter 2019-20 shows the proposed location of a storage condominium development on County Road 118. Source / Crow Wing County
A photo taken during winter 2019-20 shows the proposed location of a storage condominium development on County Road 118. Source / Crow Wing County

“We understand the desire of the developers to offer this kind of opportunity to those who want a kind of executive level storage which is clearly available in a large metro area. What we fail to understand, except for the cost of land involved, is why these developers won’t find a property already zoned commercial for this project,” a letter from neighbors George and Caroline Martin stated. “Approval of this proposal, in our mind, sets a terrible precedent for the entire area. … We wonder what commercial ideas others might have. When seeking a CUP (conditional use permit) chances are this is the development that they will mention if this gets approved.”

At first indicating support of the project, the Lake Edward Township Board has since joined the chorus of nearby residents in asking the planning commission to deny the business’ requests.

“We’re totally against it,” said George Burnard, township board chairman who’s served as a supervisor for 44 years, during a phone interview Tuesday. “ … When we found out there was people against it, we thought we must not know the whole story. … If my constituents are against it, so am I.”

Spot zoning by default?

The conditional use permit did get approved in January, allowing plans to proceed. A portion of the vacant wooded property has since been cleared to make way for structures. The variance request at issue Thursday would mean the property could be divided into much smaller lots than the zoning designation currently allows — 600 square feet, instead of 2.5 acres. This would allow Johnson and Sterne to sell the high-end units individually.

A photo provided by a neighbor taken during summer 2020 shows the development that's occurred so far at a property for which a storage condominium project is proposed. Submitted photo
A photo provided by a neighbor taken during summer 2020 shows the development that's occurred so far at a property for which a storage condominium project is proposed. Submitted photo

Gary Landem — whose property abuts two sides of the future storage site — has fought the proposal every step of the way, submitting multiple comments and testifying in person before the planning commission. In requesting the commission deny the variance request, Landem said RJ JS Properties failed to show existing zoning regulations present a practical difficulty in using the property.

“If they are going to sell these can someone please tell me the difference between the commercial zoning and using the (conditional use permit) as a way around zoning laws,” Landem wrote in his most recent comment. “The owner gets the land use as commercial and it is still spot zoning. … I am opposed to this variance … because there is no hardship or practical use problems involved.”

Previously, the company approached the county seeking a land use map amendment, which would’ve converted the property zoned as rural residential to commercial. The planning commission in October 2019 declined to recommend this change to the full county board, in part because it wanted to avoid “spot zoning” by placing a commercial parcel in the midst of mostly residential property. Requesting the conditional use permit was the business’ second stab at moving its plans forward.

Landem and others, including neighbor Jean Jones, who said her family’s roots on nearby Pelican Lake stretch back a century, contemplated filing an appeal and went so far as to take the first steps. The appeal, they said, would’ve challenged the legitimacy of the conditional use permit, including whether the planning commission failed to consider distinctions between the low-volume county road and a trunk highway. The county’s comprehensive plan states intentions to encourage commercial development in cities and along “discrete nodes along growth corridors on trunk highways.”

Another concern of those opposed is just two members of the five-member planning commission voted to approve the conditional use permit. Although a quorum was present, the atypical vote occurred with Rick Skogen absent and Chairman Don Hales abstaining, resulting in a 2-1 split. Rock Yliniemi and Sue Maske voted in favor of the permit, while Rebecca Best voted against.

After spending $7,000 seeking legal advice, Jones said continuing on with the appeals process was cost prohibitive with an additional $15,000 to $20,000 in potential fees.

“I was warned by several attorneys familiar with this type of litigation, the chances of the court ruling against a local board is rare,” Jones wrote in an email. “ … We citizens should not have to litigate to simply have our case heard!”

Clear from the start

Johnson and Sterne, along with Johnson’s father Ken Johnson, emphasized they’ve been transparent about their plans for the parcel since the beginning. Ken Johnson said he believed much of the opposition stemmed from misunderstanding and confusion over the commission’s initial refusal of the land use map amendment. He said seeking a conditional use permit was likely always the best route to take with the project, but land services staff suggested trying the amendment first.

“They (the planning commission) said they loved the project, liked what it would do for the Crow Wing County community,” Ken Johnson said. “But it should be a conditional use instead. … That led to a lot of confusion in the community about what was really going to happen.”

Ryan Johnson said while those against the project have been outspoken, he’s heard from a number of neighbors in the area who are glad to see a storage option available to help them keep their small lake lots less cluttered.

“They see the need of their own to purchase these,” Ryan Johnson said. “They’re just not the vocal ones that are speaking up and making up things about it.”

Ryan Johnson said incorrectly interpreted information provided by those who were not connected to the project led to the switch in Lake Edward Township support.

“People that knew nothing about this project, some of the local community, unduly influenced the township and made up things like living quarters and things that have never been proposed and never been part of the plan,” he said.

Sterne added, “With anything, it’s a lack of communication that creates questions and concerns and I think a lot of that question and concern was around just not having the right information about what the project is and we were very forward and upfront originally. …. So there really was no intention on the overall intent, to bring something to the community that we felt was a need and do it the right way.”

Gary Griffin, Crow Wing County land services director, said he and his staff play no part in making decisions on things like conditional uses and variances and it’s up to the planning commission to weigh the facts. He noted the comprehensive plan is a guiding document, not policy, and the commission is free to deviate from it or interpret it how they see fit.

“We even got accused of trying to help ramrod this stuff … but we’re Switzerland for crying out loud,” Griffin said by phone Tuesday. “Planning and zoning is the only area really where the referee’s the one that gets the punch, right? Because you’ve got people for it, people against it, and we’re just trying to administer what is in the ordinance. Whether this got voted up or down, too, it’s no skin off our nose. It is just that board … gets to make those decisions on the CUP.”

Griffin said the planning commission indicated a conditional use permit would offer more control than a zoning change to place conditions on the property, including vegetation screening requirements, intended to defray the impact on neighbors.

Ryan Johnson said he went above and beyond the screening conditions and kept every viable tree on the property he was able to save.

“We only needed to maintain trees to a certain buffer, but we saved several hundred trees,” he said. “Those trees will grow better now that they’re exposed to more sunlight.”

Asked whether a variance denial would change business plans, the Johnsons and Sterne declined to speculate. They said the speed at which they undertake construction plans will be dictated by market demand

“If there’s nobody that wants these, it won’t be developed very far,” Ryan Johnson said. “Let the market decide if they all get built and if it gets built, we think there’s going to be demand.”

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.