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Township suggests park on county land sought by youth camp, neighbors

FLOODWOOD — Fredenberg Township has added another twist to the saga of how to handle 80 acres of tax-forfeited county land that both neighbors and a youth adventure camp want to acquire.

A town supervisor on Tuesday told the St. Louis County Board that the township would consider acquiring the land near Island Lake for a township park that would remain undeveloped and open to the public — presumably including campers at Positive Energy Outdoors — for recreation such as snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

Positive Energy Outdoors recently made an effort to acquire the land, adjacent to the camp’s 35 acres, to ensure it can continue offering youth activities on that parcel. Blake Cazier and Stephanie Love, the husband-and-wife team that operates the camp, want to buy 200 acres of forested land elsewhere and trade with the county.

The camp has been using trails on the county land since 1997 and its owners say access to the land is critical for Positive Energy programs that introduce more than 1,000 children to outdoor activities every year — from kayaking and rock climbing to dogsledding, sleigh rides, hiking and more. More than three-fourths of those kids are from Twin Ports-area schools, including Duluth and Hermantown, while some come from as far away as Mexico.

But some neighbors protested the land trade, saying they would like to bid on the property in a public auction, the process usually used to dispose of tax-forfeited land. They said it’s unfair to cut a special deal with the camp.

That left the County Board with a quandary — and left the issue still hanging with no action taken on either a trade or public auction. Commissioners last week tabled a motion to sell the land, and that motion officially died without action Tuesday at the board’s regular meeting in Floodwood.

County Commissioner Steve Raukar on Tuesday also raised the possibility of the county officially designating the parcel as a county park. St. Louis County, while the largest of the state’s 87 counties, has no official county parks.

The land currently remains under county management and is open to public activities unless and until it is sold.

Commissioners hinted that they expect some sort of amicable resolution sometime soon.

In addition to the debate over what to do with the land, there’s also concern over conflicts between motorized and nonmotorized uses and who has the right to open or close trails on the land. Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township said the board needs to act quickly to resolve the land use conflicts at the site and conflicts between neighbors and the camp.

“Someone is going to get hurt in Fredenberg Township if we don’t have the courage to deal with this issue,” Nelson said. “This is not just a sled dog issue … not just a neighborhood squabble … it’s a public safety issue.”

Board backs lawsuit settlement over crash

Meanwhile, commissioners on Tuesday voted 6-1 to approve a mediated settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit that named the county as a defendant.

The board agreed to pay $100,000 to the family of Hannah Wilson.

Wilson, 16, of Virginia, was driving at the intersection of Industrial Park Drive and U.S. Highway 53 in Eveleth on Sept. 19, 2012, when her vehicle was struck by an SUV driven by then 38-year-old Jeffrey J. Reed of Hibbing. Wilson’s family named Reed, St. Louis County, Benchmark Engineering Inc. of Mountain Iron and Jola & Sopp Excavating Inc. of Hibbing as defendants in the civil suit, saying a poorly designed road construction area at the site contributed to the accident and her death.

The suit, filed in state court in Virginia, claims that the two companies involved were negligent because of an improperly placed road construction sign that blocked motorists’ view of oncoming traffic. The suit alleges that St. Louis County “ignored warnings of a dangerously placed sign” at the accident location and thus is negligent.

Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township voted against the settlement, he said, as a protest vote in support of 911 operators who, he said, were overworked.

The Wilson family’s attorney told the News Tribune on Monday that the county’s action will now trigger mediated settlements with the private parties involved in the suit.