Bucking the recommendation of the county’s planning commission, the Crow Wing County Board voted to deny a preliminary plat request from developers aimed at building a storage condo facility near Pelican Lake.
The 4-1 vote Tuesday, Nov. 10, came amid strong opposition from some residents living near the site in Lake Edward Township, the township board, Pelican Lakes Association and representatives of the nearby Minnesota Elks Youth Camp, along with advocacy on their behalf from Commissioner Rosemary Franzen.
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, the planned facility already gained approval for a conditional use permit allowing the placement of a business on property zoned rural residential, along with a variance to dramatically reduce the lot size allowing for the individual sale of the units. But by denying the preliminary plat, commissioners essentially reversed the variance, putting a stop to a plan to sell rather than rent out the storage condos.
The development would consist of 78 total lots, with 75 of those being storage units along with two common lots and a proposed wash bay. Also planned for the site is a 900-square-foot guest cottage. The 20-acre property is zoned as rural residential 2.5, meaning the minimum lot size in the area is 2.5 acres. The variance would’ve allowed a minimum lot area of 600 square feet and width of 20 feet.
During the meeting, the board heard from Herman Wisneski, a board member of the Elks camp located across the street from the proposed commercial development, who said a potential increase in traffic would make the area more dangerous for residents and campers alike.
“Why have we decided that it’s alright to drop a commercial into a residential area?” Wisneski said. “ … That is not a major highway. It’s not (County Highway) 3, it’s not (County Highway) 4. … Increased traffic would pose a hazard to our campers. And lastly, this is the wrong place to put this development.”
Reading from a prepared statement, Franzen summarized a number of the concerns raised by neighbors over the last year the project’s been in the works. She asserted County Road 118 is not a trunk highway, despite it being described that way by some planning commission members. Because of this, she said, placing a storage condo development there was inconsistent with the county’s comprehensive plan.
“County Road 118 is a beautiful wooded area near Pelican Lake. The surrounding land uses in the immediate vicinity are primarily rural residential 2.5 in nature,” Franzen said. “ … By approving the preliminary plat to allow selling the units, we will have potentially increased traffic, endangered our groundwater and our forests, and the safety and well-being of our citizens and children. This power we have, which is to protect our land, lakes and groundwater, as well as the citizens and taxpayers who live in this area, is humbling, and that is why there are ordinances that protect these fragile areas and their tax-paying residents and also guide us.”
Franzen added she was concerned this approval would set a precedent future developers may use to justify further commercial development within residential areas.
Chairman Steve Barrows said he was concerned the variance was granted by the planning commission despite there appearing to be no hardship for the property owners, which is one of the considerations in requests to vary from ordinances. He said the plan to sell the units would mean the county would be dealing with potentially 75 different owners or their association, which he said would be more difficult when it comes to enforcement.
“We have landowners adjacent to this that will be impacted by this development if we approve this plat,” Barrows said. “ … I cannot support the plat. The CUP (conditional use permit) is what it is, but I cannot support the plat.”
Following Barrows’ remarks, Franzen made a motion to deny the preliminary plat, with Commissioner Bill Brekken providing the second. All except Commissioner Doug Houge voted to deny. During the discussion, Houge questioned whether there were vegetation screening requirements for the property, to which environmental services supervisor Jake Frie replied there was. After the vote, Houge questioned the decision, noting with the conditional use permit already approved and the building still planned, denying the preliminary plat would not change the potential traffic on the road.
Assistant County Engineer Jory Danielson told the board Tuesday the highway department found no concerns with the plan as outlined by developers.
“I find the reasoning for using the traffic as denial seems a bit off, if we’re admitting the traffic is going to be the same regardless,” Houge said. “Jory said they found no issues.”
Developers Ryan Johnson and John Sterne of RJ JS Properties did not speak during the board meeting, but have noted during planning commission meetings as well as during an October interview with the Dispatch they see a need for a storage condo development in the area. They’ve also indicated they intend to follow all requirements and develop the land responsibly.
“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 in October. “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.
The property owners have previously stated a number of other neighbors support the project and plan to use the facility themselves to store items or vehicles they are unable to store on their own small lake lots. Several supportive comments were included in the county board's agenda packet, all of which were received after the planning commission's most recent meeting at which the variance was approved.
During an October interview, Johnson said incorrectly interpreted or wrong information was driving much of the resident opposition.
“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.”
UPDATE: This story was updated to include the fact there were supportive comments included in the record.
The Dispatch regrets the error.