The city of Nisswa will forge ahead with plans for a new park after the Crow Wing County Board agreed to hand over tax-forfeited property for free.
The split decision came Tuesday, Feb. 23, after commissioners mulled whether to stray from a recently instituted internal policy outlining when the county would sell land assets below market value. In gaining majority approval of the city’s request, Nisswa City Administrator Jenny Max said she’s excited to see the next step achieved in what’s been a long process working through a number of issues together with county staff.
“We’re appreciative of their decision and excited to start the project,” Max said by phone after Tuesday’s meeting.
The park plan brings to fruition the dream of several neighbors surrounding the forested tracts that’ve already served as de facto nature trails for generations. Max said the park would also support the city’s goal of facilitating passive recreation and interaction with natural resources.
The 10-acre stretch nestled between Hole-in-the-Day Lake and Camp Lincoln Road features existing nonmotorized trails and an overlook providing views of a wildlife preserve.
With investments by the city of Nisswa over the course of three years, the plan includes a public parking area with a restroom, informational kiosks and trash cans. A 1.3-mile trail loop would be cleared further and maintained by the city, featuring kiosks along the way sharing information on the lake, the wildlife preserve and Chief Hole-in-the-Day.
Max said trail clearing would likely begin in the spring of 2022 after a year of thoughtful conversation involving a number of different groups — including those in Native American communities — to determine trail layout and educational pieces. Work is expected to be completed in 2024.
The park project comes after the same properties were included in the county’s tax-forfeited land sale in 2019 over objections issued by the city and opposition from many in the area, including Sam Cote, director emeritus of nearby Camp Lincoln and Camp Lake Hubert.
Zoned as public recreation under the city of Nisswa’s zoning ordinance, the tracts — several of which were forfeited 84 years ago in 1937 — were overpriced in the sale, valued at nearly $168,000 as if buildable despite the city’s zoning designation prohibiting such use. The tracts did not sell and were set aside as Nisswa worked to develop a proposal for the property. Since that time, the county assigned a significantly reduced value to the property totaling $57,900.
Max asked the board to make an exception to the county’s land asset management policy, recent updates to which garnered unanimous board approval. Among those updates was more specific guidance on when county staff could sell property below market value.
Deviating from state statute governing land conveyance for a public purpose, the policy is more restrictive. Other than for purposes of correcting blight or creating affordable housing, the policy discourages the sale of land below market value for any other reason, including creating or preserving wetlands, stormwater management, a school forest or land restoration.
In recommending a more restrictive approach, land services staff said it would ease the burden of keeping track of conveyed properties for three decades — as required by law — to ensure they continued to be used for public benefit.
“This is the best way to ensure everyone is treated fairly and it eliminates the need to track parcels after sale,” the policy states. “Sales for EMV (estimated market value) also allow the purchaser more freedom to utilize the parcel however they please, with no restrictions.”
The Nisswa City Council first asked the county not to sell the Camp Lincoln Road tracts in 2017, two years before the issue arose again in June 2019. After forming a committee and developing a park proposal, the city approached the county’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee in July 2020. That committee — which advises the county board on matters relating to parks, trails, forest management and tax-forfeited lands — recommended the board approve the land conveyance at no cost to the city, provided a restroom facility was built within four years.
Recent land services practice showed below market value property transfers mostly ceased in 2007. Nisswa’s request, however, came in the wake of a unanimous June 2019 decision of the board to convey tax-forfeited land covering three times the area of the Nisswa tracts to the city of Emily for a public beach.
Validate or veer?
Tuesday’s discussion fell largely along the same fault lines as the committee of the whole discussion a week earlier, with commissioners Bill Brekken, Steve Barrows and Doug Houge offering reasons to support Nisswa’s request while commissioners Rosemary Franzen and Paul Koering preferred sticking to the recent policy.
“When I look at Hole-in-the-Day Lake, the spawning that takes place there, the wild rice that takes place, the birds that live in that area, the other wildlife that are in that area, I think all speak to what Crow Wing County wants to represent,” Barrows said to kick off the conversation Tuesday. “Having a situation where the zoning doesn’t allow for the development, and we’re sitting on tax-forfeited land and can’t do anything with it, we can’t sell it — I think that that speaks to an idea that perhaps we have to do something here.”
Barrows pointed to how long the lots were already off the tax rolls, ranging from 13-84 years, and the positive impacts another park in the county could have on the tourism economy. He also noted most parks in Brainerd and Baxter would not exist if it weren’t for conveyances of tax-forfeited properties.
Brekken, who represents the district Nisswa falls within, also said he supported the city’s request.
“I believe that the highest and best use of this property based on the existing zoning of that property would be to convey that property to the city of Nisswa,” he said.
Houge said he liked a suggestion made by Land Services Director Gary Griffin a week earlier. Griffin said the board may want to consider exceptions to the internal policy if cities or townships develop a comprehensive, well-thought-out proposal for the intended use of the property they’re interested in acquiring.
“I would support and encourage maybe that’s something that we follow up on, because I don’t think that this is going to be the last one. I hope that it isn’t,” Houge said. “ … These are (a) great tourism opportunity for our county and I think that’s important. As far as this being historical, I think it would be a great project. Probably shouldn’t even say it but I would even encourage maybe some opportunity for Crow Wing County to be involved in some of the costs of getting this project moved along to usable.”
Franzen said she didn’t understand why the other commissioners would want to set aside a policy they just approved.
“We only passed our policy on Dec. 15. That’s not even three months ago,” she said. “It was a five to nothing vote. What’s changed in three months that we can’t even follow a policy for that amount of time?”
But Franzen indicated she might consider deviating from the policy, depending on the ask. Barrows asked her what she would think if a city were to ask the county for tax-forfeited property on which to construct a water tower.
“That’s a different thing,” she responded. “That’s a need, not a want.”
Barrows said statute allows for land to be conveyed at less than market value in both public use instances. Franzen stood firm and said she would vote no on Nisswa’s request.
“It takes courage to follow — it’s very easy to be nice and say yes to everything. I’m going to attempt to be courageous and do what our policy says,” Franzen said.
Brekken said learning more information after making a decision can change his opinion.
“I’ve found in my history that sometimes I make a decision and the next day I find out additional information that maybe that decision was incorrect, and I think … having some opportunities to take each case on an individual basis makes more sense to me.”
Koering, participating virtually while in Florida, kept his comments short, stating simply he thought the board should stick with the policy and he would vote no.
Max said if a majority of the board voted to charge Nisswa market value for the property, she would’ve sought direction from the city council on whether members wished to continue with the park plan.
“The conversation we had at the city level back in early 2020 was they wanted to pursue this project with the intent we wouldn’t have to pay anything for the property and really use our dollars available to improve it,” she said. “That was their intent at the time. I’m not sure what would’ve come of that if we did have to pay.”