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Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf, at left, and Board of Adjustment member Ken Grob listen to a variance proposal. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Board of Adjustment meanders; like herding cats

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news Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

Call it a Monday morning meltdown - or a meeting requiring a tub full of Tums.

Hubbard County Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf had a difficult time keeping the Board of Adjustment under control at its monthly meeting.

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The usually reticent Buitenwerf made facial contortions and shook his head no numerous times during a meeting in which members tackled everything but what was on the agenda.

A clearly stressed Buitenwerf invited BOA member Ken Grob to his office after the meeting adjourned to discuss some of Grob's concerns, which spilled out after the meeting had been adjourned.

Buitenwerf specifically un-invited the Enterprise to the same meeting of the minds.

It all began with a simple request by Ken and Sue Jost to add a small bedroom to their tiny Third Crow Wing lake cabin.

"It's 24 by 20," Sue Jost described the size of the present structure. "That's smaller than most average garages."

But Ken Jost asked if he could propose Plan B, which would realign the addition and the cabin roof, to be more palatable to the board. Whichever option was cheaper, Jost suggested to the board.

Grob jumped at the option, suggesting the initial request be tabled or revised and re-presented.

Jost seemed amenable and suggested the BOA could consider either proposal.

Ruh roh.

Buitenwerf said, "Only one option can be submitted" for consideration to the board. "Procedurally the office will not accept multiple options," he added.

Grob and board members peppered the ESO with questions about how many conditions they could attach, or whether Josts could submit another variance once they determined costs of Plan B.

Buitenwerf repeatedly tried to steer members back to the item in front of them.

"It's nice that we're talking about this but it's not his proposal," he told Grob more than once.

Grob suggested tabling the item, which didn't sit well with Jost.

"Eric said you may not have a January meeting, so that puts me into February," Jost noted.

Because of winter conditions and snow, contractors don't usually build during the winter months, and BOA members have issues with site visitations when there is heavy snow cover.

Jost said he wanted to get an early spring start.

Neighbors universally supported the plan before the board.

Grob persevered. He said the topography of the lot, the low spot where the cabin sat and the slope of the terrain "are all conducive to runoff. That's why we're having this discussion" of where and how the addition should be placed.

Grob then moved to condition approval of the variance on Josts putting a rain gutter on the front of the house to direct runoff away from the lake. Ken Jost sat nodding his head no in disbelief during the prolonged discussion.

The motion passed.

Then came a request on Little Wolf Lake, a three-part proposal in which homeowners Mark and Gail Anderson wanted to build a new storage shed, a new septic system and a new house on a double lot they've owned since 2007.

An hour-long discussion on the three-part request ensued.

Buitenwerf's facial contortions and head nodding became more pronounced when board members threw the staff recommendations out the window and decided they had a better way.

The board has been the subject of contentious lawsuits lately, so Environmental Services staff members painstakingly draft a document called "staff recommendations" to guide the board's decisions. That has been in practice more than a year.

It is likely the recommendation of outside counsel to prepare those documents but Buitenwerf won't discuss them. However, his office does provide the recommendations, an open record by law, upon request.

You could call it the "BOA playbook."

So when Gail Anderson and brother-in-law Dean Knutson came to the table, it was unclear what happened to the playbook.

"The lot is not large enough to support the proposed improvements and the improvements could be located differently on the lot such that fewer variances and variances of lesser degrees would be needed," the staff recommendations suggested.

"The department recommends denial of the application because the proposal is not appropriate for a lot of this size and shape," the recommendations continued.

The board then discussed the case extensively looking for a way around an outright denial of the request.

This time BOA member Tim Johnson led the insurrection, questioning the septic system plans and whether the existing cabin 20 feet from the lakeshore would continue to use a porta-john bathoom.

Gail Anderson said yes.

Johnson pointed out that all the cabins on the same roadway had been allowed to encroach on the road right-of-way, so the request to let the Anderson shed encroach shouldn't be treated differently.

"We either need a small house on that lot or we're gonna kill each other in that cabin," Gail Anderson laughed. "We need storage."

Grob then jumped in with conditions that would force the Andersons to remove the existing cabin and boathouse if the board allowed the new home.

"The issue is density related to the size of the lot," Buitenwerf interrupted.

New BOA member Charlene Christenson asked if the road, which presented the most practical difficulty, could be vacated or moved by board action.

"The court would have to vacate the road since it's never been taken over by the township," Buitenwerf said, clearly rattled by the direction the discussion was heading.

Johnson said since the lake straddles Hubbard and Cass Counties, the board could apply Cass's 75-foot setback to the new septic system rather than Hubbard County's more stringent rules.

Buitenwerf, by now looking like a bobblehead doll, shook his head, wide-eyed.

"The lot does not even meet half of the required minimum lot area and RSLA (residential lot suitable area) for having a guest cottage," the staff recommendations indicated. The septic system "is being proposed to be closer to the OHW (ordinary high water mark) than necessary because of where the landowners want to site their proposed house. The proposal needs to be scaled back to better fit the lot," the recommendations noted.

"The landowner is simply proposing too many items for the lot" in a manner that requests relief from too many ordinances, Buitenwerf's recommendation suggested.

Eventually Johnson, who said the septic system was located in the worst place on the lot, withdrew his motion and ventured one to deny the application.

But Grob persisted in suggesting a tradeoff for the cabin, the boathouse and a sandpoint well, which should all be conditionally removed, he said. Johnson's condition of an alternate septic site was also added.

Buitenwerf, struggling to keep his composure, warned Grob that the board was treading on illegal ground and could make no such deals.

"I don't know if you have grounds to have that removed," Buitenwerf told Grob of the cabin. "It would have to revert to non-dwelling use."

Grob persisted.

"We are on shaky legal ground," Buitenwerf said. "They are legally nonconforming buildings."

Buitenwerf suggested the issues being debated had no nexus to the variance requests and were peripheral at best.

"I see a nexus that makes sense," Grob disagreed.

Christenson questioned whether it was wise to buck the department recommendations.

The board eventually granted the shed request, denied the request to build a house and granted the septic request with Johnson's condition.

As interim board chair Tom Krueger tried to get the motion passed, Grob kept listing his talking points. The two men talked over each other until the house issue was defeated.

In other business, the board quickly:

n Granted a request by Kaleidoscope Holdings Group to administratively create a riparian lot that doesn't meet the 150-foot setback and eventually build a new cabin on it. It's the site of the former Pioneer Resort, developers said.

n The board also approved a request by Richard Bond to rebuild his lake stairs on Long Lake and add a platform deck to place a table and chairs, removing an existing and rotting wood planter.

Grob conditioned the request on planting lake vegetation twice the length the architect had proposed to buffer any runoff.

After the meeting Grob launched a discussion into what the board could and could not do.

If homeowners want to volunteer removal of excess buildings that are legal, they can, Buitenwerf suggested. But the board can't condition a variance on removal of a legal structure.

Grob argued the board "shouldn't enable them to keep that cabin," referring to the Anderson's old cabin, which would be used for storage.

Even Christenson agreed. As a longtime lake resident, she said over time, buildings not intended as living structures tend to become spare bedrooms.

And that's what bothered Grob.

"We're enabling someone else in the future to violate" the ordinances, he said.

Andersons verbally agreed not to use it as anything but storage, but a subsequent owner may not agree.

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