Residents of the Lake Vermilion area were surprised to hear St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson's comments in February that later appeared on YouTube, but perhaps not for the same reason as other residents of the county. While the uproar for most centered on Nelson's comments regarding slavery, it was his professed devotion to the opinions of his constituents that struck many here as the real shocker.
For anyone who has followed the efforts by Lake Vermilion residents to shape the future development of this spectacular lake, Nelson's claims of devotion to the "will of the people" sounded hollow. In reality, he has repeatedly sought to block efforts to establish more environmentally sensitive zoning on the lake, despite the overwhelming support voiced by local residents in a survey and in public hearings.
Nearly six years ago, Lake Vermilion residents, with assistance from St. Louis County and the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission, came together in an effort to update the lake's management plan. They set up a steering committee composed of representatives of the various townships and cities that border Lake Vermilion, as well as members of interest groups like resort owners, real estate agents, and the local sportsmen's club. The committee prepared a detailed opinion survey and mailed it out to thousands of lake residents. About 40 percent of the surveys were returned, an excellent rate for a mailed survey. Two-thirds of those responding said they saw overdevelopment as a significant issue and wanted reasonable controls that would, in particular, limit the kinds of high-density development that has so transformed many other lake regions in Minnesota. Subsequent well-attended public hearings bolstered the results, as large majorities of lake residents voiced support for stricter zoning rules.
The steering committee spent the next year ironing out the details, and it presented a carefully crafted and decidedly moderate plan to the county planning commission in late 2003. The plan has languished in county hands ever since, thanks in part to the vocal and often angry opposition of Commissioner Nelson.
As a news editor who frequently has covered public hearings on the proposed Lake Vermilion management plan, I have been impressed by the patience and respect demonstrated by lake residents -- even when they occasionally have disagreed over details of the plan. But Nelson has been a notable exception. At more than one hearing, he interjected loudly with his views, including wild accusations.
As reported in the Timberjay, Nelson, at a hearing at the Vermilion Lake Town Hall in late June 2005, railed against the plan and accused business owners in Tower of being behind efforts to restrict development on the lake. Local residents, who had followed the planning process, knew there was nothing to his allegations. He later apologized for being "ornery," but his comments weren't just angry, they were irresponsible.
What has been most perplexing is that Nelson doesn't even represent the Lake Vermilion area, which is located in Commissioner Mike Forsman's district.
Perhaps Nelson's devotion to the "will of the people" only applies to his own constituents. He apparently doesn't mind running roughshod over the rest of us.
Marshall Helmberger is managing editor of the Timberjay Newspapers in Tower-Soudan.