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Final action on Swan Lake development Tuesday

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WILLMAR -- A narrow gravel road that leads to property near a shallow lake in Kandiyohi Township is at the heart of a dispute over a proposed housing development.

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Referred to as the "disputed road" in court documents, the road should actually be a road block to the proposed development, according to members of the Swan Lake Hunting Club, which has owned property in the area for 20 years.

The housing developers, Ricky and Angee Whitcomb, are proposing a six-lot residential development called Swan Lake Estates that would overlook some wetlands and Swan Lake, which is located south of the town of Kandiyohi, near Little Kandiyohi Lake. There are no actual lake lots in the proposed development, which is zoned as residential.

On Jan. 9, the Kandiyohi County Planning Commission approved a final plat for the development, with one member saying he voted for the plat while acknowledging potential problems with the road leading to the site.

Final action on the plat is expected to be taken Tuesday by the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners. Two of the five commissioners are out of town and will not be at the meeting.

Shortly after purchasing land near Swan Lake, the Whitcombs in 2004 submitted a preliminary plat for the residential development, noting access on Township Road 169.

Members of the Swan Lake Hunting Club objected to the proposal.

The small group of local men purchased their property in that area for hunting and to help preserve the land, wetlands and the lake, said Larry Peart, one of the original hunting club members.

Peart of Willmar said they objected to the housing proposal because of concerns that deterioration of the lake's water quality would accelerate. The club, which hosts youth hunting events at the site and allows local law enforcement agencies to use the grounds for tactical and hostage-training exercises, was also concerned that having houses so near would limit its ability to fire guns.

The club's secluded property includes an old farmhouse that law enforcement agencies use for training and a hunting shack.

And, said Peart, the club members believed that a section of the road that leads to the Whitcomb property and the hunting club's property was private, not public, which would prohibit access to some of the proposed lots.

A narrow road, known as Kandiyohi Township Road 169, extends off of County Road 8 toward Swan Lake. The road changes drastically midway and gets even narrower and rougher. Peart describes it as a private field road. There are vehicle tracks in the snow, but the road has not been plowed recently.

The Kandiyohi Town Board believed it was a township road and approved the Whitcombs' preliminary plat, said Wally Gustafson, a Willmar attorney representing the Whitcombs.

The hunting club filed a civil lawsuit against Kandiyohi Township and the Whitcombs. In a ruling this June, District Court Judge Gerald Seibel determined that the 1,150-foot stretch of disputed road, which he called a "path," was indeed a private road. In his order, Seibel gave people who own land along the road an easement to use it.

In October, the township board rejected a petitioned request to establish the road as a township road. That was followed by new motions submitted to the court by attorneys representing the Whitcombs, the township and the hunting club. One of the motions submitted by the Whitcombs asked the court to require all landowners, including the hunting club members, to financially contribute to improving and maintaining the road.

The motions were subsequently withdrawn.

Peart said last week that after all sides agreed to withdraw their motions, he believed the proposed development was a dead issue because not all of the Whitcombs' lots would have access to the road.

Gustafson said the agreement to withdraw the motions indicated there was agreement that all landowners in the development would have access to the road and the project would proceed. That's why the Whitcombs submitted their final plat this month, he said.

Gary Geer, Kandiyohi County zoning administrator, said the issue of whether the road is public or private is outside the boundaries of the current zoning ordinance. He said he's not aware of any existing development in the county that has a private road leading to it, but said it is not prohibited under the current ordinance.

The proposed plat includes development of a public road called Swan Lake Drive. It would link up with the private road, which then turns into the existing township road. Peart said it's quite odd to have a stretch of private road linking two public roads.

Gustafson said he sees no problem with the presence of the private road or its current condition. He said the future residents of the development may want to leave it as it is to preserve the solitude of the area.

Beyond the details of the road, Peart said the hunting club is also concerned about the fragile nature of Swan Lake, which has a depth of about 5½ feet. He said more silt and sediment are added every year through a drainage ditch. Increased storm water runoff from the housing development could add to the damage of the lake and nearby wetlands, he said.

Peart said soil tests conducted in the area show land that's prone to erosion and ill-suited for development. Letters from the Department of Natural Resources also state concern for the sensitive shallow lake area.

LeRoy Dahlke, area wildlife supervisor for the DNR, wrote a letter to Geer in April of 2004 that said Swan Lake, which he called a "natural environment or shallow waterfowl lake" has "huge water quality issues" that could be further harmed by a new development.

Geer said a water management plan was submitted as part of the proposed plat.

Because it's illegal to shoot a firearm within 500 feet of a house, Peart said the rights of the hunting club will also be jeopardized if the development is approved Tuesday.

Gustafson said the fact that shooting restrictions would apply doesn't give the hunting club the right to "control" how the Whitcombs use their property. He said the Whitcombs shouldn't be prohibited from developing their land so that the hunting club can "shoot on theirs."

While the rights of different property owners may be in question, Peart said the county commissioners should weigh the benefits of the public before making their decision.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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