Protesters oppose planned unit development
What has become a controversial variance and conditional use request by a Hubbard County family has turned into a rallying cry for lakeshore stewards.
And it stuns the family of Dan and Mary Jeanne Schneeman, who have proposed to turn the resort they bought 40 years ago into a small planned unit development so they could upgrade the cabins, a proposal they repeatedly termed modest.
A room full of opponents gathered at Monday's Board of Adjustment meeting, one holding protest signs that read, "Save our loons from Hubbard County." It was standing room only.
In the end the board tabled the proposal as it urged the family to bring the plan into setback compliance. As initially presented, many board members were hard pressed to find the necessary hardships to grant a variance.
Several representatives of the Coalition of Lake Associations attended Monday's meeting. Their attorney essentially warned the board, "We've sued you before and we're not afraid to do it again."
Earlier this spring COLA and others filed a lawsuit after the board made a controversial ruling last winter on another PUD proposal, allowing Eagle's Landing Resort on Fifth Crow Wing to increase the dock moorings by many times what the ordinance allows.
This summer the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote a series of articles criticizing variance boards in north central Minnesota for their lack of oversight in approving variances in two neighboring counties. The series reported almost a 90 percent pass rate for variances. That would be on a par with what the Hubbard County board grants.
So the Schneeman plan seems to be the victim of unfortunate timing.
"My family has spent years thinking of what to do with this property," said the Schneemans' daughter Julie Gough, who presented the family proposal. The family owns a peninsula between Lower Bottle and Emma lakes. In 2009 much of the land was sold to the Trust for Public Lands for preservation purposes.
Gough said if the family wanted to spoil the remaining land, members, who have formed a limited liability company, could have built huge homes on the land without board approval.
But they wanted to keep the compound relatively small and clustered together, they said, maintaining the look of a 1940s fishing resort. That would leave much of the land unspoiled.
The plan entails moving six cabins out of the shore impact zone while rebuilding them eventually within the 100-foot ordinary high water mark, an area COLA considers sacrosanct.
The cabins cannot be moved back further due to overhead power lines, the septic system that serves the property, a DNR easement and a road through the middle of the resort, Gough told the board.
Those were the hardships she sought to overcome with a variance.
"This land is very near and dear to the hearts of our family," Gough told the board. "We could meet the 100 foot setback but it would destroy the land if we put seven cabins back up there" in the peninsula. "We would have to take out trees for the cabins, the road and the septic system."
Gough reiterated again that, "we don't want to build big homes."
Board member Jerry Cole was troubled by the increase in the size of the newly built structures, which planner Tom Miller said would be "2 to 2½ times the size of the original structures."
"We kind of sit in a Catch 22," Cole replied. "I try to live by the ordinance" that grants only a 50 percent increase in building size.
"New construction is different," Miller said, pointing out the family could legally build nine structures in the first tier of the development and two in the second tier.
Board member Charles Knight said he was troubled the family might be seeking a variance in perpetuity because only one of the cabins has immediate plans for rebuilding.
"You asked for five years out, ten years out," he told Gough. "The laws could change between then. You're betting on the future. We act for the present day."
"We're acting for today's ordinance," Miller said. "I don't know how else we can do it."
Board chair Lou Schwindt told Gough the family could move the road and power line; the DNR could move its easement.
"I'm having a difficult time with this large piece of property that you can't get back" out of the setback, Schwindt said. He wondered if moving a drain field for the septic system was a true hardship as the family claims.
Neighbors largely supported the plan, pointing out the Schneemans are "environmentally conscious. This isn't mansions on the water line," neighbor Tim Moore wrote. "It's a great idea to preserve the up north feel."
Mary Jeanne Schneeman said the cabins are "death traps" built in 1938. 'I don't know if you call that a hardship but I do. I have 40 grandchildren."
COLA attorney and representative Chuck Diessner, a Potato Lake resident, said he applauded what the Schneemans were doing with the family and the land.
"That's not what this is about," he said. "We're here because of what the ordinances say. It's not a personal matter. We don't want variances granted because people are good people."
Diessner introduced a letter written by colleague Brian McCool, the attorney representing the plaintiffs suing the county in the Eagles Landing matter. It was sent to various officials last week.
Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf claimed no knowledge or receipt of the letter.
Cole and others said they had received a copy.
"This board, this body, is the watchdog for the county," Diessner reminded the board, saying the state gave counties the responsibility to protect the use of the shorelands for the health, safety and general welfare of the residents.
He said he was representing the room full of residents gathered for the meeting.
Diessner criticized Buitenwerf in his presentation, claiming the ESO misrepresented the proposal to the public by asserting the county's planning commission and county board were in favor of the project. The planning commission approved the plan without findings of fact; the county board refused to vote on it.
But Diessner took special exception to the fact the ESO had neglected to address the most important ordinance applicable to the situation, Section 1015.
In doing so, the application was flawed and should be denied, he maintained.
That ordinance says if you're converting a resort to a PUD with cabins inside the shore impact zone those cabins cannot be expanded.
"If feasible they must be relocated outside the 100 foot setback," Diessner said of the ordinance. "There is no exception here."
He also said the board doesn't have the authority to grant a use variance, and that the impediments the family claims are "hardships created by the applicants."
If the variance is not a use ordinance, but an area variance, he said there is a "substantial deviation from the ordinance," one criteria of granting a variance.
The "natural intent" of what the Schneemans propose "is not what the ordinance says," Diessner pointed out.
""In three years they could sell it to a developer," he said.
Dan Schneeman said he considered just that years ago and rejected the idea when the DNR approached him to sell the land to the Trust.
Diessner urged a sunset clause on any variance granted. Otherwise it would give the family an unlimited time frame to complete the conversion, he said.
An area variance can be granted if there's no substantial variation to the conversion.
"This is 3.7 times the size of the original footprint," he said, as Gough shook her head no.
COLA president Dan Kittelson asked the board to follow the ordinance and deny the application as presented.
"You need to make decisions on the facts, not how you feel about these people or how it looks," he said.
"You need to find the courage to deny this variance, to protect our lakes. That's your job."
Doug Kingsley, supervisor of the DNR Fisheries office in Park Rapids, said there are alternatives that could be explored.
"The easement is open to relocation," he said. And the family's plans for dock slips wasn't in keeping with the ordinance, which says docks and swimming areas should be placed in a central location.
"They're proposing three spread over 1,200 feet on 1,500 feet of lakeshore," he said.
Rebuttal and compromise
Neighbor Barry Munson said lost in the emotional debate over the cabin location was "the science of protecting the waters.
"These folks are willing to move out of the impact zone," he said, pointing out the second 50 feet of the setback requirement is "an aesthetic wish." It has not been scientifically proven that development there harms the water, he said.
Others asked the board to reach a compromise with the Schneemans because the proposal was not grand in scale and the family's intent was to preserve some natural aspects of the land.
In the end the board tabled the matter until September so both sides could work toward some type of accommodation the board would be willing to approve.
Protester Ron Lindahl, a 6th Crow Wing resident, brought signs asking the board to save the loons.
He said development "affects all the waters in Hubbard County. Pretty soon we won't have these creatures or eagles," he said, thumping his picket sign.
The Schneeman bay has a loon nest with loons. The peninsula they donated has a bald eagle's nest. Baby eagles are getting ready to fly.