The Hubbard County Planning Commission narrowly endorsed a conditional use permit (CUP) for a proposed recreational vehicle (RV) campground on Long Lake.
On a 3-2 vote, the commission recommended approval of Chris Bolton's CUP after attaching 16 additional conditions.
Acting as the Hubbard County Board of Adjustment, they denied three of Bolton's four variance requests related to the campground.
The board room was packed Monday with approximately 60 people - the majority opposed to the project.
Bolton requested a CUP to operate Bolton Bay RV Park, with 14 camping sites on about five acres located at 18080 Emerald Island Circle, the northwest side of Long Lake.
"My lot has everything needed to make a beautiful, unique, small RV park near Park Rapids," he said. "Each of my RV spots would be high-end, offering full hookup, including 20, 30 and 50 amp electrical service, water, sewer, cable, fire pit and picnic table."
According to the Hubbard County Environmental Services Office (ESO), the county shoreland management ordinance's (SMO) rental unit density calculations allow a maximum of 14 RV sites on Bolton's property. Eight sites may be in Tier 1 (0 to 267 feet landward of the ordinary high water mark) and six in Tier 2 (267 to 534 feet).
Bolton's CUP application proposed locating all 14 RV sites in Tier 2. He withdrew his variance request for an additional six tent sites, which would have exceeded the rental unit density for the property.
The board of adjustment only approved one of Bolton's variance applications. They agreed to reduce each RV campsite from 3,000 to 2,400 square feet.
"The Minnesota Department of Health requires the lot size to be at least 2,000 square feet, which I exceed by 400 square feet," Bolton said of the 40-by-60-foot RV sites. "My goal is to preserve as many trees as possible while still providing a large space for my guests. At 2,400 square feet, each lot can easily accommodate an RV, vehicle, boat, picnic table and a fire ring. Many local RV parks in our community have sites with square footage much less than 2,400 square feet."
According to the ESO, the county ordinance requires one RV per 3,000 square feet; however, the state's shoreland rule does not contain a similar regulation.
When asked about the rationale behind the stricter 3,000-square-foot requirement, ESO Director Eric Buitenwerf said he would only be speculating.
If the RV sites were enlarged to 3,000 square feet, Bolton said they would be closer to property lines and more trees would be removed. The smaller campsites "will be best for the neighbors and create a nice buffer," he said, adding "they are very, very similar in size to campsites even on the lake at Spruce Hill, Cedar Shores, Shady Point. They are 2,400 or smaller."
The larger sites also bump into the septic system, meaning it would have to be moved, Bolton said. The plan requires two septic systems, one east and one south.
Pushing campsites or a septic system into Tier 1 runs into another problem, Bolton said, where a berm runs across his property, creating a natural, protective barrier for the lake.
Board member Tim Johnson agreed it's more desirable to keep the campsites smaller. He moved to approve the 2,400-square-foot variance "due to circumstances unique to the property," adding the condition that all 14 sites must stay in Tier 2. The motion passed 4-1, with board member Ted Van Kempen opposed.
Jim Peters, a Glenwood attorney representing neighboring lake owners, expressed their concern about RV traffic on Enchanted Drive and Emerald Island Circle, which were described as narrow township roads prone to erosion. "The width of the access roads is pretty small," he said.
Board chair Tom Krueger noted that Henrietta Township asked Bolton to make Emerald Island Circle the main approach.
Bolton agreed that would be the advertised entrance and exit for the RV park.
To gauge traffic flow, board member Ken Grob asked for Bolton's estimate of seasonal versus transient campers.
"That would be a tough guess. I would say half," Bolton replied.
Since the shoreline is limited, Grob asked what recreational opportunities are available for the estimated 40 to 50 campers.
While there is no sandy swimming beach, Bolton said the majority of RV campers simply seek access to a lake and bring their own pontoons. Long Lake is known for its largemouth bass fishing, he added.
Bolton's CUP design includes a 10-by-34-foot bath house and a single dock with eight permanent boat slips.
Bolton said he plans to live at an existing house onsite and manage the campground.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Area Fisheries Supervisor Doug Kingsley and area hydrologist Darrin Hoverson met with Bolton Sept. 11 to review the dock proposal. Hoverson spoke at Monday's meeting. Bolton said he's amenable to reconfigure the dock according to the DNR's plan, which extends the current 88-foot dock another 60 to 80 feet lakeward at a southeasterly angle.
"This proposed layout will put the watercraft into deeper water, limit lake bottom disturbance and resuspension of sediment and allows for the shallower portions of the existing mooring facility to be naturalized and unused," Hoverson explained in a Sept. 14 letter to the ESO.
Bolton said the boat slips will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Hoverson recommended that one of the eight slips be used for Bolton's personal watercraft.
Hoverson said he received dozens of calls regarding boat traffic, use and erosion.
"The DNR, in these matters, tries to provide recommendations to mitigate or minimize impacts, particularly in cases where there's an impact to the lake," Hoverson said.
The county ordinance is "much more restrictive than a lot of state standards," he continued. "That's a benefit and the DNR commends the county for following the ordinance."
In his letter, Hoverson wrote, "Variances to shoreland ordinance standards are an important tool for balancing property rights with the public's right to clean water and healthy habitats."
Hoverson said the DNR expects a "no-wake zone" throughout the bay, channel and 200 feet from shore
Bolton said he would enforce a no-wake zone, post signs, include the rule in his campground contract and install no-wake buoys. Bolton suggested using a two-strikes-and-you're-out rule for violators.
The requirements for an environment review of the RV park have not been met, Hoverson said.
Aquatic vegetation violations
In reading the numerous letters in opposition to the project, Krueger noted a common complaint was Bolton's illegal clearing of aquatic vegetation in the bay in 2014.
Hoverson explained that Bolton used a hydrojet that blew out aquatic material on the lake bottom. Bolton paid the fine, and the area is to be left to regenerate. The DNR does not require any further remediation.
When asked how long it will take to regrow, Hoverson said, it will vary depending on the type of submerged vegetation. "It can take years, many years, particularly when you excavate to the depth that was excavated and the fill that was placed on top."
Clifford Sweeney, who lives directly north of the proposed RV park, questioned Bolton's ability to control boat traffic. "I've been told the manner Mr. Bolton operates his own boat, he has shown no regard for other people in kayakers and/or paddleboards," he said. "I don't want, and I don't think anybody else would want, a campground in their backyard."
There will be too much campfire smoke, Sweeney said. In addition, he can't use his deck because it's in plain sight of all the campers. "You wouldn't feel comfortable out there, somebody gawking at you," he said.
John Hensel said his family has been coming to Long Lake for 70 years. As a lake association member, Hensel said they have worked closely with the county to address "significant, potential threats to Long Lake," in particular AIS and shoreline erosion.
Approval of the CUP would set "a dangerous precedent for an extremely questionable project," Hensel said. "This particular applicant's failure to a comply with the shoreline ordinance in the past is a reliable indicator of his expected non-compliance in the future. Now is not the time to vary from the shoreline ordinance."
Hensel predicted camper's boats and jet skis will destroy the wetlands within one season.
Sharon Natzel, president of the Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations and a Long Lake resident, said she was concerned about the RV park being primarily an airBnB or Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) location. "Does the county have the necessary guidelines in place?" she asked, noting that VRBOs need appropriate zoning, health inspections, environmental protections and a fair and level playing field for the resort/campground industry. She asked the board to deny the CUP.
A need for RV parks
Chamber President Butch De La Hunt spoke in favor of the RV park and its positive economic impact.
"Each and every day at the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, we have RV people that come to our community that don't have access to RV campgrounds," he said because most of the area's campgrounds have turned into seasonal sites, which commit RVers to one site for an entire year.
There are very few, limited campsites for those who want frequent, but short family vacations in multiple locations closer to home, De La Hunt said. "If we want people to come to our area, we have to offer mini-vacations," he continued. "We have to open up new avenues for people to come to the area. If we don't create this experience, they will stop coming here and I'll have to send them somewhere else."
Hoverson said RV campgrounds are very common in Cass, Crow Wing and adjacent counties for the reasons that De La Hunt stated.
Three variances denied
The board of adjustment denied an after-the-fact variance request for a trapezoidal, 16-by-8-foot paver platform placed 33 feet from the shoreline. The required setback is 100 feet. The ESO recommended denial due to the "ample room on the property for a platform to be placed at a conforming OHW setback" with a view of the lake.
Likewise, the board denied Bolton's request to construct a 4-by-8-foot concrete platform to accommodate a memorial bench for his son, who passed away from a car accident in July. Bolton wished to install it 50 feet from the OHW, but, again, the ordinance requires a 100-foot setback.
ESO staff recommended denial, saying the "essential character of the locality" would be harmed by the platform, which would be visible from the lake. "A platform this close to the shoreline would harm the bay's and adjacent 1,000-plus feet of undeveloped shoreline," said the staff report. They found "no practical difficulty" for the memorial to be placed in a conforming location.
Finally, the board denied Bolton's request for a 20-foot path to the lake rather than the 6-foot-wide path called for by the county ordinance. ESO staff noted that this area was "illegally altered in 2013 and ought to be restored to natural conditions," adding that Bolton cleared the understory and ground cover vegetation "and took no action toward bringing the area into compliance until this summer when he expressed interest in creating an RV campground on the property."
ESO required Bolton to plant 35 native species in a random pattern in the SIZ. Bolton said he planted 16 raspberries, 18 chokecherries and eight dogwoods recently.
Based on staff photos taken on Sept. 19, Buitenwerf said the plants did not look like they would survive.
Proposed CUP conditions
The planning commission approved the CUP on a 3-2 vote, with board members Ted Van Kempen and Grob opposed. The CUP includes these conditions, among others:
• Fifty percent of the shore impact zone (SIZ) must be preserved in its natural state and cannot be mowed.
• The outstanding 2013 vegetative alteration violation within the SIZ must be fully resolved to the ESO's satisfaction before an operating permit will be issued. Buitenwerf said the trapezoidal platform must be removed, the newly planted native vegetation must survive and mowing must cease.
• The campground may only operate May 1 through Oct. 31.
• A maximum of 14 RV campsites are allowed. They may be rented on a daily, weekly or seasonal basis. None may be VRBO.
• Quiet hours are 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. Campfires must be extinguished by 11 p.m.
• A full-time onsite manager or employee must be present on the property or available to respond to an incident, need or complaint within four hours of being contacted.
• The existing house may only be the owner/manager's residence, not another rental unit.
• RV access is limited to Emerald Island Circle. Cars may use Enchanted Drive.
• Bolton is required to get an aquatic plant permit from the DNR to maintain a permanent channel from the mooring out to open water, plus post a no-wake zone.
• Vegetative screening of over 50 percent is required along the north property line, Enchanted Drive and Emerald Island Circle, with "leaf on conditions."
• All campsite surfaces must be kept in permanent dense, grass cover.
• Two septic systems must be installed to service the RV campsites and must be compliant. All of the sites must be provided with electricity, water and sewer hookups.
• Only one dock with eight permanent watercraft mooring slips is allowed. It must conform exactly to the DNR's proposed layout.
Buitenwerf explained that the planning commission/board of adjustment is a recommending body to the Hubbard County Board. The next step is for county commissioners to review the CUP recommendation and make a final decision at an upcoming county board meeting, he said.