MERRIFIELD -- Controversy bubbled to the surface in Lake Edward Township even before the recent supervisor's election and it does not appear to be finished yet.
At issue is how Merrifield will grow in the future, particularly in regard to commercial development.
Dave Luke, Lake Edward Township planning committee member, said he expects the discussion to attract standing room only at the 7 p.m. township meeting today at the town hall.
Luke said it all started when there was an argument about what to do with the former Kenny's Oil property. Whether to use the tax-forfeited land for a city park or commercial use became a campaign issue between George Burnard, incumbent township supervisor and write-in candidate Ron Rydh, a planning committee member.
Burnard was re-elected 377-141 victory. At the time, Rydh said he was motivated to launch his write-in campaign when the town board declined to conduct a public hearing on its decision not to buy the former site of Kenny's Oil in Merrifield for possible use as a Paul Bunyan Trail rest stop. Before the election Burnard said he was concerned with spending township dollars on a trail stop when the town hall did not have simple amenities.
The Kenny's Oil site became a focal point for a larger discussion of commercial growth in and around Merrifield.
This week, Luke said he now has two concerns about the township board. One concern is that the township board will abolish the Long Range Planning Committee. Luke, who was appointed by Burnard, said he is afraid a decision to disband the planning committee may be more related to getting rid of certain committee members.
"To me that's not right," Luke said.
Luke said another issue has been false information about the planning committee's lack of support for business. He disagreed with the idea the planning committee is no longer needed. The committee is made up of volunteers who are not paid per diem meeting fees. Luke said instead of costing the township money, the committee has grant dollars for comprehensive planning and is pursuing another grant.
Joel Kauffman, owner of Kauffman's Inc., a plastic bag manufacturer, earlier raised concerns as to whether the planning committee or the comprehensive plan was in favor of businesses or commercial growth at all.
In particular, Kauffman pointed to the Fab 4 business that moved into a former excavating company's property in the township and put money into restructuring. Then Fab 4 owners were informed they could not operate their manufacturing business because it was not the same type of business as was formerly located there. Fab 4 owners confirmed the predicament but declined an interview request. For Kauffman the ramifications extend beyond Fab 4's business.
"If I ever want to sell, I'd have to sell it as the existing business or I would not be approved for the permit," Kauffman said. Today Kauffman said the planning committee seems to be just another level of bureaucracy. With Potlatch closing, Kauffman said manufacturing jobs are needed and just a small percentage of township is zoned commercial. Without more options for manufacturing businesses that pay the better wages, Kauffman said the smaller companies that cannot afford Baxter will locate south of Brainerd.
Luke was originally sympathetic for Fab 4, but he said the business failed to get a conditional use permit and has claimed ignorance to the zoning requirements.
"To me that doesn't work," he said. Luke said an argument is the planning committee is against business growth. "Their fear is that we don't want any commercial at all and that is not true."
There is a "big split" between people who are looking for more business versus those who want to keep the area more residential, Luke said. But he said a growing majority of people appear in favor of growth.
And Luke said the question is whether that growth is sporadic or uncontrolled, continues to stretch out along the main drag with little parking or develops around the idea of a town square. Luke said he is surprised when people say the committee is anti-growth.
Luke said he would like to see the township board post agendas of its meetings and even consider expanding to a five-member board. As far as tonight's discussion, Luke said: "It will be an interesting meeting."
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