Response to County's Response
THE REST OF THE STORY
Crow Wing County felt it necessary to share county administrator Tim Houle’s response to the Star Tribune’s three-part series of articles on lakeshore development.
Mr. Houle writes, “Ample heat, but little light was generated by the Star Tribune’s recent story…” I think it’s only fair to open the curtains and let all the light shine in.
I am the current volunteer president of the Crow Wing Lakes and Rivers Alliance (LARA). We represent 38 lake associations in Crow Wing County, which actually comprises approximately 74 different lakes. These lakes include over 12,000 shoreland properties that pay over $31 million in property taxes to the county every year.
From our vantage point, the county administrator’s claim that Crow Wing County is “firmly committed to a standard of excellence in protecting these resources,” does not stand up to the facts.
Sure, there have been a few positive changes at the county like requiring preapproval site visits before permits are issued, and having three enforcement officers instead of one, but the overlying theme at the county continues to be, as Mr. Houle states in his article, “a commitment to excellent customer service.”
As the Star Tribune series of articles truthfully and accurately reported, this county, in recent years, has rarely met a development application, or a variance request that it didn’t like.
Keep the customer happy. Saying, “No,” even to a bad development idea, no longer seems to be an option.
The county, in its desire to promote excellent customer service, has in effect, created a system of winners and losers, which only dooms us to unending pendulum sweeps as one “side” then the other claims a majority on the county board and overturns their predecessor’s policies.
We need leaders who can craft durable agreements that serve the best interests of ALL county residents, not just those with the problem-du-jour.
Durable agreements come through robust policy discussions in the community, and not by ignoring the guiding documents of the county – such as the comprehensive plan and the shoreland ordinances – and removing citizen input from policy boards like the Water Plan Advisory Committee, and the Parks and Trails Advisory Committee.
These two important citizen boards were dismantled by a county board that incorrectly decided that they knew what was best, and that citizen concerns were inconsequential.
When LARA presents valid arguments before the planning commission, or the county board, that highlight potential detrimental impacts to public waters when customers are allowed to do as they please, those finding are often ignored by the majority of our decision makers.
LARA’s point of view is now treated as a bothersome waste of their time. One county commissioner has even called those of us who care about the future health of our lakes, “activists,” as if that word is something to be scorned. Actively working to protect public waters is an honorable quality that should be respected and imitated by our elected and appointed officials.
And this isn’t about rich folks attempting to drive county policy, as some elected officials incorrectly portray it when lake associations voice their concerns
While some of us could be considered “rich,” I am certainly not one of them. The people I represent cover a broad range of the economic spectrum.
What we all have in common is a passion for lakes and livable communities in Crow Wing County, and as citizen volunteers, we are working to ensure that healthy lakes will be around for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to enjoy as much as we do.
Right now, in this county, public good and protection of our environment takes a back seat to customer service and the perceived immediate rights of property owners to do as they please.
This county has set aside the vision of the comprehensive plan as well as good, working shoreland ordinances in favor of satisfying the needs of those citizens who are only concerned that they get what they want when they want it, no matter what impact their actions (including financial impacts) force on others.
For example, who pays to fix future expensive water pollution problems that sound scientific information predicts will occur if certain land-use decisions are allowed to happen?
Taxpayers like you and I do. Every arbitrary land-use decision that this county makes adds future tax burdens to all of us.
For a county board that prides itself in managing costs during difficult economic times, their approval of questionable development projects has pushed more severe costs onto future county boards and generations of citizens, while at the same time making this a less appealing place to want to live.
The purpose of the county’s shoreland ordinance is, “…to promote an attractive, orderly, stable and wholesome environment…” but there is nothing orderly about the current development decisions being made in Crow Wing County.
Economic value and natural beauty – other key attributes identified in the county’s ordinance – are tossed aside, or viewed in the short-term with no regard to cumulative losses.
Success shouldn’t be measured simply by the number of satisfied customers that walk out your door. Efficiency in processing applications is a budgetary measure, not an effectiveness measure. Success must be measured by a more appropriate outcome – how well ALL citizens of the county (both present and future) have been served long-term by the actions of our officials.
There are many examples of this current ineffective way of governing, and they are all part of the public record. I will just mention a couple that justify the claims made in the Star Tribune articles.
First, LARA worked very closely with former county planner Bonnie Finnerty at her request, along with others like the DNR, to craft the new SR-2 zoning district, which was an attempt to reduce the impact of future development on lake water quality by reducing maximum development potential.
In other words, lake lots should be larger.
Larger lots mean less density.
Less density means fewer negative impacts on water quality.
In August 2008, applicants (and their attorneys) seeking excellent customer service and their “rights” as property owners asked the planning commission and the county board to change the language of the SR-2 ordinance so they could split their lakeshore properties into more, smaller lots than the new ordinance allowed.
They did not want to adhere to the passage, “New shoreland lots that are created as a result of zoning map amendments after August 8, 2006, must meet the requirements of the SR-2 zoning district.”
The planning commission and the county board ignored the best available science that shows a direct correlation between higher density development and lower water quality.
They ignored the data that shows that property values are directly related to water quality.
They also ignored the many months of research, discussion and compromise by many citizens representing many stakeholder groups that led to the creation of the SR-2 zoning district language.
And of course they ignored what LARA had to say
. What they didn’t ignore were the applicants’ claims that the SR-2 ordinance was grossly unfair to them. They wanted to still be able to use the old standards, despite what the comprehensive plan called for and despite what we now know based on good science that previously wasn’t available when the old rules were written.
In the name of customer service, the county allowed the desires of a few to once again trump sound science and an ordinance that was reasonable, credible, fair, and a compromise that all of us could live with.
Changing the language of the ordinance for a few disgruntled customers was a slap in the face to the many citizens who volunteered their time and expertise to create a much-needed SR-2 zoning district that respected the intent of the county’s comprehensive plan to not continue to allow small lot development in shorelands.
Compromising the compromise has become an acceptable practice in Crow Wing County, especially when it can be spun to reflect the county’s pledge of “customer service.”
My second example of the county’s lack of a standard of excellence when it comes to protecting our lakes has to deal with their recent handling of lake associations seeking official designation as a Lake Improvement District (LID).
Serpent Lake applied for LID status to deal with the expensive treatment of aquatic invasive species (AIS).
A majority of property owners on Serpent Lake (62%) agreed to increase their own property taxes to protect public waters and their own property values.
They did everything the county asked them to do, and more.
LARA spoke in favor of the application. Most testifying before the county board supported Serpent Lake’s request. Then, in a split vote, the county board voted to not allow Serpent Lake to acquire LID status.
On top of that, the county commissioners who turned them down gave no good reasons for their decision. It seems as if customer service doesn’t apply to lake associations.
Now, the county has changed its rules allowing lake associations to achieve LID status.
It’s worth mentioning that these new rules were done without citizen input.
LARA was not invited to discuss proposed changes. Lake associations weren’t invited to participate in the process. Conservation groups were not consulted.
Like the Water Plan and the Parks and Trails Advisory Plan, citizens were removed from the discussion.
And what the county came up with on its own doesn’t better serve the interests of lake residents.
It only serves to make it more difficult for lake associations to proactively deal with big problems for which there are few other options.
The county is now requiring 60% of the property owners to agree instead of the current DNR standard of 51%, which is required by Minnesota Statute.
They are also requiring that an escrow account with a minimum $1000 be set up to cover the county’s costs associated with administering a LID.
In other words, protecting public waters isn’t important enough for us to help cover some of the costs, but if you want to pay us, we might be in favor of your application. Are these the actions of a county that prioritizes the protection of its environment? Hardly.
Public policy is messy. There is no disputing that, but it becomes less messy when you have a citizen-driven comprehensive plan (and stick to it) along with ordinances that support the comprehensive plan (and stick to them).
One vital plan that is missing in Crow Wing County is a Future Land Use Map.
Without one, we will continue to have unfocused, haphazard development decisions that have irreversible legacy costs to the citizens of Crow Wing County well into the future and far beyond the terms of this current board and their staff.
The beginnings of a Future Land Use Map already exist somewhere in the files at the County Land Services Building.
In 2004, the Brainerd Lakes Area Conservation Collaborative (BLACC), which included representation by the county planner and the county parks director (a position that the county has since eliminated), presented a series of maps to the county board to help them make more informed decisions regarding natural resource planning and guiding development away from ecologically sensitive areas.
The maps also showed where development made sense based on existing infrastructure, soil conditions, ecological sensitivity, etc.
The entire county board at that time responded with enthusiasm and one board member was heard to say, “Here’s our Future Land Use Map right here, and we got it for free.”
The county planner then met with members of BLACC, as well as a local planning consultant who offered his services for free, and they put together a draft Future Land Use Map to begin fruitful discussions with township boards, with citizen groups, with ALL the stakeholders.
That’s as far as it got.
When the county board changed, so did official opinions about the need for a Future Land Use Map.
All that hard work was tossed aside.
So was any future robust community discussion about the plan. Once again, citizen input and sound science was replaced with the hubris of an all-knowing, all-seeing county board whose mantra was “Customer satisfaction is #1.”
While I commend Mr. Houle for making changes at the county, it’s all window dressing if the emphasis continues to be on customer service rather than on what’s best for the long-term health of our community.
In a county that relies heavily on its lakes to generate millions of tourism dollars every year, not to mention millions of property tax dollars every year, we can’t afford to keep saying yes to almost every development or variance application that comes before the planning commission/board of adjustment and the county board.
Rather than lip service, let’s truly set a standard of excellence and adhere to it, even if that means saying, “No, that isn’t good enough for this community.”
President of Crow Wing Lakes and Rivers Alliance (LARA)
Lakes Region Program Director, 1000 Friends of Minnesota