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Growing concern over public access

The DNR is taking comments on a proposed improvement project at a public access on Big Sand Lake.

     The DNR has capitulated to growing requests to meet with residents of Big Sand Lake over a proposed public access project on Grouse Road.

     The meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 26 at the Lake Emma Township Hall.

     DNR officials had declined a public forum, but growing concern about the project apparently persuaded the agency.

     A public comment period is currently underway until the end of the month. About 75 comments for and against the project have been received thus far in various forms, said David Schotzko area supervisor for the division of parks and trails.

     “This is our process for obtaining comments instead of a public hearing, which can be polarized and allow any vocal group whether for or against a project to dominate,” wrote Tony Walzer, an acquisition and development specialist with the same DNR division.

     Walzer made the comments in an email to Big Sand Lake Association residents.

     “We believe the process should be as open as possible without any hint of intimidation,” Walzer’s email continues.  “This does not preclude having an open house to discuss potential conceptual designs and obtain feedback in a less polarized environment and also meeting separately with interest groups, such as the Big Sand Lake Association…”

     “We’ve got a pretty good mix” of comments, Schotzko said. “They’re seeing the same things we are – some safety concerns, the situation that exists right now could use some improving but then of course there are people that are concerned about what’s being done. If it could add to the likelihood there could be invasives … if it’s going to improve use in their opinion, more use would be more chance,” he said, characterizing the concerns.

     But Schotzko said the DNR wants the improved access to ward against the threat of Aquatic Invasive Species.

     “We would give people an area to pull over and check for those types of things,” he added.

     Like most public access points in Hubbard County, the Big Sand Lake site was a monitored periodically by watercraft inspectors during the summer.

     “I’ve spoken with quite a few people giving their concerns, comments and suggestion,” Schotzko said.

     The design so far is in the embryonic stages.

     “We don’t want to pay our engineers a lot of money to spend a lot of time on that,” Schotzko said.

     But preliminary suggestions are turning into general concepts, he said. The plan calls for purchase of a home adjacent to the access to enlarge the entire site.

     “We’ve done so many of these, we can evaluate a site based on past experience and have a pretty good idea how it’s going to work,” he said. “We would have never gotten this far without quite a bit of the thought process going into that.”

     Frequent visits to the site have reinforced intentions to proceed with the project, he said. The idea is to purchase a home next to the access and build on, currently owned by Fred and Polly Boggs.

     “It likely will just be one ramp,” he said. “We likely will leave as many trees as possible there. We can design pretty good around that. We’re going to try to utilize the footprint of the house as best as we can and be very selective in taking trees.”

     Schotzko said there’s a mistaken impression the DNR would clear-cut the wooded site and that’s far from the truth.

     “If you look at any of our past sites that’s not the case,” Schotzko said. “We want to leave a buffer so people across the lake don’t have to… so it’s not a clear cut.”

     Once the public comments have been received and categorized, the DNR will respond to commenters about their concerns. Schotzko said it might make more sense to eliminate the original access and start on what is called the Boggs property, tying in the parking lot as a use area.

     “But that’s just me speaking,” he said, “It will be up to the designers to come up with a plan” and c0ome up with at least two different plans for consideration.

     The Big Sand Lake Association isn’t endorsing the project thus far.

     Former association president Barbara Kimer is one of the residents with mixed feelings.

     “I would prefer to see that property left in private hands so the trees are left intact and the access is not heavily used,” she said.

     “The expenditure is a lot of money that could be used for AIS prevention and ways to negate the effects (of any foreign species introduced into the lake.)

     “You know, we have boats coming from Gull Lake and other areas that have infestations and it’s a concern,” she said. “It seems to be a large amount of money that could be used for other purposes.”

     Big Sand Lake resident Jon Monson agrees.

      And, like many county residents, he questions taking more property off the tax rolls.

     “In light of the big picture, the DNR proposal seems less and less about filling an angler's need and more and more about filling the DNR's need to spend money just because they have it,” he remarked in an email.

The money issue

     “The Boggs’ property is mostly tree covered with a dense line of white cedars separating their property from the launch area and serving as a buffer,” Walz noted in an email to DNR staffers. 

  “Two structures, a house and garage, are located on the site.  The total assessed valuation is $366,400 with $274,300 for the land and $92,100 for the house and garage.  Their asking price is $399,000.  Water depth appears to be good, due to the flowage toward the outlet, but not good for winter access.”

     Polly Boggs, owner of the property, said the listed price has been dropped to $369,000, even though it is still officially listed at the higher price on the realtor’s website.

     She was deeply critical of the earlier Enterprise coverage of the issue, contending the public access is busy and in need of enlargement.

     Her property has been on the market several years, she acknowledged, so she and her husband would like to complete the sale.

     DNR Fisheries Supervisor Doug Kingsley referred media questions to the DNR Parks & Trails division, saying Fisheries really hadn’t taken a position on the acquisition.

     But his emails show some doubts.

     “The consensus in our office is that the cost of this parcel would probably not be worth the benefits to be gained,” Kingsley wrote on Dec. 27, 2012. 

     “We have not heard any demand for better or additional access at Big Sand (certainly not like Long Lake!).The additional parcel would not provide winter access, which is currently lacking at Big Sand.

     “Other lakeshore property owners would likely object to a larger access site and the removal of trees on the property, which is also counter to our lakeshore development standards,” Kingsley noted in his email.

     “$400,000 seems like too much to pay to improve ADA, AIS measures, and traffic flow for open water access only,” Kingsley added.

     Since the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed in 2008, much more land has been purchased and set aside for conservation in northern Minnesota. That takes it off the tax rolls and shifts the tax burden to other property owners.

  The Legislature compensates counties for land removed from its taxable status. But residents and politicians worry those funds, more than $20 million, are “low hanging fruit” and subject to cuts if the state gets in a financial bind.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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