When Crow Wing County's new comprehensive plan was pitched to county residents last summer two concerns were heard at all six meetings: protect our natural resources and preserve our rural character.
But how? The county added 5,046 permanent homes between 1990 and 2000, with 71 percent being new homes and 15 percent being upgrades of summer cabins. The county's population is expected to jump from 55,000 to 90,000 in 25 years -- numbers that present a tough challenge to county planners seeking to balance new growth with preservation of the open spaces people come here for.
Land, as the saying goes, is one thing they're not making any more of. Ditto for clean water and fresh air. The new county plan and how it addresses growth, therefore, is key to how Crow Wing County's open spaces will look like in 20 years.
"It's really difficult to balance everyone's needs," county planner Bonnie Finnerty said. "People say we should preserve large tracts of undeveloped land, yet most people can't afford them. So what do we do? Give everybody their five acres and when it's all gone say, 'Sorry, we don't have any land left?'"
Nobody knows if the new county plan will succeed in protecting our natural resources. But everyone agrees the county must step up enforcement of ordinances pertaining to growth, Finnerty said. "That's the key -- updating the ordinances," she said.
The former county plan, developed in 1994, "kind of sat on the shelf," Finnerty said, as it lacked a schedule for implementation. County ordinances weren't updated. Most were written in the 1970s -- an ice age ago in Crow Wing County terms.
"Knowing that happened last time," Finnerty said, "the key to this new plan will be an implementation schedule that show who's accountable for doing what."
At the public meetings participants said the county is not consistent in enforcing zoning laws. Ordinances will shape the growth of the county. Consistent enforcement will be important to the success of the new plan, Finnerty said..
Details of the new plan were not disclosed, but Finnerty said not to expect major changes. "There will just be more accountability," she said.
One ordinance that is almost sure to be revised is the ordinance for how land can be sub-divided. The loss of farm land to new housing is occurring at an alarming rate nationwide as well as in Crow Wing County. How many local farmers want to sell land?
"Almost all of them," Finnerty said. "If not now then for their retirement. If we want to prevent having farm land chopped up into housing plots we'll have to find a way to compensate (farmers). We could buy the development rights. There are other tools. We need to update our toolbox."
But the county won't take over private property, Finnerty added, or take public land and make it private. It would appear, then, that if county residents want to preserve large tracts of undeveloped land than they will have to grow accustomed to living closer to their neighbors. Educating people to this need will be vital if the county is to maintain any semblance of a rural place.
"Look at what happened in Washington County," Finnerty said. "Everybody has five acres and a pole barn. The entire landscape is gone. There's nowhere to go."
Finnerty showed a futuristic housing plan that clustered houses on part of a property while leaving the remainder to woods and trails.
"You'd have a sense of community, yet you'd have trails and you wouldn't have neighbors over here," she said, pointing to open land on the plan. "When all the five-acre tracts are gone this will be high demand stuff."
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