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DNR considers land exchange-Hovland for Grand Marais

Rhonda Silence- Cook County Star, December 11, 2006

Cook County Land Commissioner Ted Mershon has been notified that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is considering a land exchange with a private landowner, potentially exchanging approximately 300 acres of state land near the city of Grand Marais for 440 acres in the Hovland area. The matter will be introduced and explained in detail at the Tuesday, December 12 county board meeting.
According to a DNR Area Forest Supervisor Doug Rowlett of Two Harbors, Larry DeWester contacted the DNR about a possible land exchange. DeWester owns 440 acres in Hovland, off of the Jackson Lake and Andy Lake Forest Roads in Township 63N, Range 4E, Sections 15, 21, and 22. The land is surrounded by the Grand Portage State Forest and federal land and much of it has been logged. The land is zoned FAR-1, which requires 20 acre sites for development. It is a remote area of the county, far from maintained roads and other infrastructure.
The state land being considered for the trade is near the city of Grand Marais, in Township 61N, Range 1E, Section 18. The approximately 300 acres in the Pat Bayle State Forest have two different zoning classifications, R-1, which allows 2-acre sites and FAR-3, which allows 5-acre sites for development. A portion of the land abuts the Sawtooth Mountain property owned by Cook County and the city of Grand Marais, which has been the focus of community discussion for many years. The Cook County - Grand Marais Economic Development Authority (EDA) is considering taking on the role of developer for that property. The EDA board has stated it will take into consideration the work done by two citizen groups, the Old Ski Hill Consensus Committee and the Sawtooth Bluff Committee.The remainder of the land, 227-acres, is along the new Gunflint Trail.

A portion is above the Gunflint Trail on the hillside overlooking Grand Marais and the remainder is on the lower side of the Gunflint Trail, above the EDA's proposed residential development and the Cedar Grove Business Park. The land also abuts the Pincushion Mountain Ski Area. It is also above the 33-acre Blackwell Addition, which School District 166 has agreed to sell to Anna Hamilton of Grand Marais. Hamilton plans to create a residential development on the site.
Land Commissioner Mershon said he would be asking the county board for feedback on the land exchange proposal because "the land is so similar to Section 17, the 'old ski hill' area, which most people want to see left alone."The county board's comments will be passed along to the DNR North Shore Field Team in Two Harbors to review at a December 14 meeting in Two Harbors. Reached by phone, Rowlett stressed that this is just the beginning of the process, that the DNR has made no commitment to make the land exchange. He said the North Shore group is an interdisciplinary team consisting of representatives from forestry, wildlife, fisheries, environmental services, engineering and hydrology. The team has several options. If the team agrees that the land exchange is not in the best interest of the DNR, it could deny the request outright. If the team agrees that the exchange would benefit the DNR, the matter is sent on for review by a regional team in Grand Rapids, then a state review team. And, if the team members cannot reach a consensus on how to proceed, the request is forwarded to the regional team.If the proposal is approved by those entities, an appraisal of the land is done.


Mershon and Rowlett both said the property exchanged must be of equal value, which is why there is a disparity of acreage. "There are fewer acres in the Grand Marais property, but it may be worth more since it has highway access," said Rowlett. If the appraisal finds that the properties have reasonably equivalent values, the exchange process can continue and a public hearing will be held. Rowlett said, "Typically these hearings are held in St. Paul. Most of these land exchanges go through without any ruffle. But, in some situations the hearings could be held locally. That would probably be the case with this."

However, members of the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway would like to stop the land exchange before it progresses that far. Members were quick to voice opposition, noting that the state land near the city encompasses over a mile of the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway. The Byway group also points out that the land is primarily used recreationally, with the North Shore State Snowmobile Trail and Superior Hiking Trail passing through the property.Scenic Byways member Jim Raml said that the exchange was not equitable. "They are trading 400 acres that has already been logged for some of the most beautiful real estate in the county. Yes, it's important to trade non-developable land for land that can be developed, but there are extenuating circumstances here. I don't think any of this land on the hillside is developable. Plus, this is 300 acres that every one sees from town; it's the first section of the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway." Rowlett reiterated that no decision had been made yet. "We're really just in the beginning stages. We haven't made a commitment one way or the other."Citizens wishing to give comments on the proposed land exchange to the Cook County Commissioners may attend the county board meeting on December 12. The matter is scheduled for discussion at 9:00 a.m. The land exchange is also scheduled to be discussed at the Wednesday, December 13 Grand Marais city council meeting, which begins at 4:30 p.m. City Administrator Mike Roth noted the short timeline for comments and said, "I'm not sure what input the council will be able to provide-we may just ask for more time to consider this."
 

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Email reply from Rhonda Silence--

"Pasted below is the follow-up story. The good news is the proposal was withdrawn. The bad news is the DNR may still sell some of its land in the area. Stay tuned!"

DNR land exchange proposal withdrawn
Rhonda Silence
Just a few hours after 30-plus people crowded into the Cook County commissioner’s room to protest a proposed Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) land exchange, Larry DeWester, the property owner who initiated the proposed exchange of 440 acres in Hovland for approximately 300 acres on the outskirts of the city of Grand Marais, withdrew his request. Although the citizens opposed to the land exchange will most likely be relieved to learn that the exchange will not take place, they may be troubled by a recent announcement of proposed DNR land sales—some in the same area that caused such consternation.
DNR Area Forester Doug Rowlett of Two Harbors was on hand to hear numerous people speak out at the Tuesday, December 12, 2006board meeting, all in opposition of trading the land near Grand Marais for land in Hovland. Hal Greenwood, chair of the Grand Marais Planning Commission, presented a copy of the resolution passed by the planning commission, 3-0, in opposition to the proposed land exchange.
John Bottger, of Hungry Jack Lake, said he felt that the exchange was “being rammed through” and questioned why a person could a purchase “wasteland” and then be allowed to exchange it for such valuable property.
Shari Baker, co-owner of Gunflint Pines Resort and Chair of the Gunflint Trail Association (GTA), said she sent an e-mail to members, seeking feedback. She said the majority of businesses opposed the proposal.
Local artist Betsy Bowen said that while the idea of consolidating state lands makes sense, the taking of the land close to town did not. “This land is important to all of us. The trails are used by many of us and the view is enjoyed by all of us,” said Bowen.
Nancy Seaton, Chair of the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byways Committee repeated Bottger’s thoughts, questioning the DNR’s process for a proposed land exchange. She added that the proposal was not equal. “A diamond is carbon; coal is carbon—but they are not equal. I hope this diamond is not traded away,” she said.
Amy Wilfahrt, a member of both the Old Ski Hill Consensus Committee and the more recent Sawtooth Bluff Committee, said what is unique about the hillside is the view. “You can’t put a value on the view,” she said.
Jim Raml, a member of the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byways Committee, said he was very concerned about the DNR’s plans for the land even if the land exchange did not take place. He said the DNR had a list of potential property sales in Cook County, which includes two parcels of the land surrounding Grand Marais.
Commissioner Bob Fenwick answered the complaints about the DNR’s process. “There are a couple of times in this process when the DNR can come to the local governmental unit. This hasn’t gone to the field review team yet. This is the appropriate time to discuss this.”
However, Fenwick agreed with the many community members who spoke. “The whole idea is ill-conceived. I would like to see a comprehensive look taken of how that hillside is used by all of us, and I would like to see that considered by the DNR when they sit down to discuss this.”
Commissioners Fritz Sobanja and Jim Johnson supported Fenwick, and Johnson added that he had received 43 e-mails opposed to the proposal and one supporting it.
Raml reiterated his concerns about the potential sale of the DNR lands near Grand Marais. “If people are opposed to the land trade, I would assume that people are also opposed to the sale.”
He asked the board to express opposition to the sale of any of the DNR land near Grand Marais. Commissioner Fenwick said he would not be in favor of asking for restrictions on the sale of the state land. However, he added that he the city and county must be included in any discussions regarding potential sales. He also said it wouldn’t be “outside the realm of possibility” for the county or city to purchase the land.
Commissioner Bruce Martinson suggested that the DNR create a management plan for the use of its lands, similar to the plans completed for Temperance and Cascade River State Parks. His colleagues agreed, and passed a unanimous motion opposing the proposed land exchange. After the aye motions, there was a round of applause.
Shortly after the commissioners’ meeting, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced that it would no longer be pursuing a land exchange with DeWester. Jean Goad of the DNR said DeWester had contacted the DNR after the county board meeting, notifying the DNR that he would prefer to withdraw his request.
 
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