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County prepares to broaden discussion on vacation rentals

Cook County, Minnesota
Cook County, Minnesota

There was a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, March 27. The following discussion and action items occurred during Tuesday’s meeting.
Public Comment
There was one person who spoke during the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting. Local resident Arvis Thompson had a series of questions and concerns about how and where the county spends its money, particularly with bonding requests for 2018. Thompson questioned where the Hovland garage for the highway department ranks as a priority on the bonding list. She also wondered why the county was considering doing business with Lutsen Mountains ski resort using county funds, or even just a resolution to show support for the project.

Thompson did not want the county to go down a path similar to the YMCA or the golf course in Lutsen.

“That’s not where my tax money should be going,” Thompson said.
County Attorney
To start the regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken shared an update on the property owned by the local hospital. Hicken acknowledged that the situation is fairly complex and historical, but the idea for the request is to update the hospital’s mortgage and property rights. 

Commissioner Jan Sivertson questioned if this issue would also impact the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic, a move that led to the topic being tabled until later in the meeting. After she had time to research the matter, Hicken said the 'right-of-reversion' line indicates the clinic and hospital parcels are separate when considering this specific request.

Eventually, the commissioners voted to support the changes impacting the county’s involvement with the hospital’s mortgage. 
Todd Smith
Cook County Assessor Todd Smith spoke about tax abatements throughout the county. In general terms, a tax abatement is a reduction of taxes granted by a government to encourage economic development, zoning issues or due to a clerical error. Smith had three Cook County properties that needed adjustment and approval by the county board. After minimal discussion, the commissioners approved the request from the county assessor.
IT Department, Radio Communication
Also speaking on Tuesday were Rena Rogers and Rowan Watkins from the county’s IT and communications department. Though Rogers and Watkins did not have a specific request for the county board, they did share information on the county’s ‘Radio Communication Project.’

Rogers said her department is planning to do quarterly updates on projects and operations involved with the IT department and communication plans, updates and policies for the county. This would include tower development and installation throughout the county, Rogers noted. The idea behind adding more towers throughout the county is to improve communication while having a minimal impact on the land of Cook County, according to Watkins and Rogers.

Rogers also discussed the important topic of 9-1-1 reliability, or emergency-services reliability when phone service goes down in certain parts of the county, including the Gunflint Trail. The county is finalizing plans to improve a backup system to maintain 9-1-1 phone services when the local lines are down or damaged.

“I believe this update could save someone’s life,” she said.

Watkins shared updates on cell phone service or provide coverage for Cook County. Cell phone providers are expanding throughout the county, or at least have interest in placement on towers in the county, including T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T.

This could bring cell phone coverage in the near future to the Gunflint Trail, Watkins noted.

Other projects that could bring towers to Cook County include areas near Hovland, Colvill and Schroeder. These towers could be higher than those proposed up the Gunflint Trail in 2018 and the near future.

Commissioner Sivertson questioned if towers will need to be this high the future and if it’s a good idea to build such structures now if they won’t need to be so large in the future.

Watkins said there are developments in wireless communication, but the need for towers remains high, particularly for public safety needs. 

“I’m always cautious when someone asks me to predict the future on something like that,” Watkins said.  “But from what we’ve been told and what we hear from the experts, we don’t see a huge shift happening anytime soon and we have a lot of space on the towers.”

This space on towers throughout the county is what Watkins referred to as “prime real estate.”

Board Chair Ginny Storlie questioned if the new towers coming to Cook County, including the proposed tower on the shores of Seagull Lake, could resemble a large pine tree rather than a standard communication tower.

Rogers said the Minnesota Department of Transportation is paying for some of the new towers and would be unlikely to pay the extra expense to ‘camouflage’ the towers.

Land Services Department
Tim Nelson, the director of the county’s land services department, shared an update on the local buffer ordinance and a new state program.  In October 2017, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton thanked many of the state’s farmers and county governments for their efforts to comply with a new water-quality law. The Minnesota law requires landowners to plant stretches of vegetation along public waterways to help improve water quality and prevent erosion.

Autumn 2017 marked the first major deadline for the law, and the statewide compliance rate already stands at 95 percent.

Meanwhile, Cook County is adopting its own version of a buffer ordinance, which includes enforcement of the law. During Tuesday’s meeting, Nelson shared an update on the buffer law and local regulation, with the approval of his request necessary for state funding to maintain regulation on the local level.
Vacation Rentals
Bill Lane from the county’s land services department addressed the commissioners on Tuesday. Lane had a request for a conditional use permit to change a private residence in Lutsen into a vacation rental on the public market. The county board approved the request with minimal discussion about making the Lutsen property a vacation rental, however, Commissioner Myron Bursheim said he would like to have a larger discussion about vacation rentals in the community.

Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk said there is a county committee set up specifically for the discussion of vacation rentals.
There are approximately 200 known vacation rentals in Cook County, according to Nelson.

Board Chair Storlie said it could be appropriate to have an update on vacation rentals that are currently in, and planning to come to Cook County.
Highway 61 and Sawtooth Bluffs Update
Speaking on Tuesday about two timely and important topics in Cook County were John McDonald from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Andy Hubley from the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission.

This is an annual visit from the ARDC and MNDOT where information is shared on various transportation projects of relevance to the Arrowhead region. The purpose is to have direct communication between committees and state agencies that are discussing projects with local or regional significance regarding infrastructure and roadways.

McDonald reviewed several pages of projects and funding that Cook County could be qualified for, or interested in parenting with state agencies to bring to reality. He also discussed several federally funded projects that are scheduled for Cook Count in 2019 and 2020.

Specific to Cook County, McDonald pointed out the fact there are 18 bridges listed as impaired or in need of improvement or repairs.

“It’s a pretty big number for a smaller county,” he said.

McDonald said he would like to see those taken care of, pointing out that there are a variety of funding avenues to assist with making these repairs and improvements that do not involve raising the local levy.
County Administrator Update
County Administrator Jeff Cadwell shared several updates during Tuesday’s meeting on a variety of county news. Cadwell said he wanted to point out that comments made during the public comment period about the expansion of Lutsen Mountains does not involve the county entering into any financial support or requests from the county or use of county-collected tax dollars.
Commissioner Updates
In more discussion from Tuesday’s meeting, Storlie said the Monday night meeting led by the Sawtooth Bluffs Steering Committee for the development of the Grand Marais property overlooking the city was very educational and valuable for community members.

Commissioner Myron Bursheim, who serves on the steering committee, said overall the meeting on Monday was beneficial to all parties involved. The Sawtooth Bluffs Steering Committee will meet again in two weeks and will reevaluate the many comments from the Monday night meeting, Bursheim said. 

Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk also attended the meeting about Sawtooth Bluffs on March 26. She said there was a variety of discussion looking at many facets involved with the project.

“We’re looking at the big picture which I think is very positive,” Doo-Kirk said.
To hear more about Tuesday’s meeting of the commissioners, below is an interview with WTIP’s Joe Friedrichs and Board Chair Ginny Storlie about the decisions and discussion from this week’s meeting of the county board.