MORRIS - The Stevens County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to deny a citizen petition requesting an environmental assessment on a proposed commercial development on Perkins Lake after a report found that the project would not cause any significant environmental effects in the area.
Stevens County Planning and Zoning Administrator Bill Kleindl told the board that the environmental effects of a project to develop the former Luther Crest Bible Camp property can be "anticipated and controlled" though ongoing regulatory channels and, therefore, an Environmental Assessment Worksheet was not necessary.
However, critics of the project who filed the petition contended that Kleindl's report did not consider the potential cumulative effects of the development proposal and should have taken into account an earlier proposal that suggested a more extensive development of the property.
Conflict has arisen over the proposed development at every stage of the process, starting with a proposal to re-zone the property to a new commercial designation. Specific details for what the development would include are included in a conditional use permit filed by the property owners, B&H Holdings.
According to the CUP, B&H Holdings seeks to rent out the preexisting pavilion and three cabins on the property for wedding parties, family reunions and other similar events. The project also includes about a 12,300 square foot area for overnight recreational vehicle camping.
The citizen petition to the Environmental Quality Board listed nine potential environmental impacts of the proposed development: noise pollution, impeded fishing, erosion from boat usage, safety concerns for both boaters and swimmers, threats from invasive species, disrupted wildlife habitats, tree removal, and groundwater contamination from an inadequate septic system.
Kleindl's report found that there were not significant environmental effects related to these claims, often because the petitioners had not provided sufficient evidence for their claims, the concern could be addressed through the normal permitting process, or because the proposed development does not add to risks Perkins Lake already faces as a public access lake in Minnesota.
Michael O'Reilly, a neighbor to the proposed development and petitioner's representative, was critical of Kleindl's report at the hearing. O'Reilly said Kleindl had "short-changed the review" by ignoring B&H Holdings earlier suggestion of 30 seasonal RV sites on the property.
O'Reilly also expressed concerns about the process that has been used throughout the discussions on the proposed development, arguing that by holding this hearing two days before the deadline for a decision there was not enough time for residents to comment and give the report "proper analysis."
"There is going to be damage done to that spot and the woods," O' Reilly concluded. "There's going to be degradation of the lifestyle of the residents if 30 RVs are allowed and you are the folks that will be responsible for the effects. ... You are complicit in the degradation of the county."
Stevens County Attorney Aaron Jordan noted that at prior meetings, B&H Holdings has said they don't intend to move forward with the seasonal camping sites and that the CUP only includes four overnight RV sites.
"The CUP has nothing in there about these RV sites," said Jordan. "I think that's an important distinction at this time. It's my understanding that this citizen petition is based off of the presumption that someday there's going to be a 30 RV site."
If B&H Holdings presents a future CPU to the county that did include more RV sites, an EAW could be necessary then, said Jordan.
John Stephens, a homeowner near Perkins Lake, praised O'Reilly for "standing up to the system" and noted that he and other homeowners are concerned about future development on the property, not the first proposal for four RV sites.
"In essence, by protecting his own lifestyle, he's protecting ours as well. The spin-off benefit is that these things are being scrutinized where otherwise they would have been railroaded through," said Stevens.
When given time to respond, Jon Backman, speaking on behalf of B&H Holdings said that although initially they did put 30 RV sites in their first proposal for the zoning change, the RVs are not their first priority.
"At this point, we do not have any plans for 30 RV sites," said Backman.
Board members were not convinced by O'Reilly's argument that the 30 RV sites should be considered in this process since they are not part of the filed conditional use permit or that there may be significant environmental effects from the project.
"There is a public landing on this lake," said Gausman. "The way I see this, this lake is not owned by the private homeowners, this is a public lake any anyone that wants to have a boat on that lake lawfully has the right to do so.
"In our findings, I believe out of the nine environmental effects alleged, I believe on seven of the nine there really was no evidence proposed in the petition," said Commissioner Ron Staples.
Next, B&H Holdings' conditional use permit will be considered by the Stevens County Planning Commission. A date for that hearing has not yet been set.