A youth camp that specializes in introducing kids to the outdoors has been ordered to stay off 80 acres of public land in Fredenberg Township, an order camp officials say could jeopardize their operation.
Positive Energy Outdoors - which has been using the public land for 18 years - received a letter from town officials saying they are not allowed to bring any clients onto the land which was recently given to the township from St. Louis County to maintain as an undeveloped park.
"This letter is to serve as formal notice that the entity (doing business as) Positive Energy Outdoors Adventures, effective today, may not enter or remain on the" township park land off Datka Road, the township wrote in an Oct. 10 letter to camp founders and directors Blake Cazier and Stephanie Love. "Failure to comply with this notice will result in legal action."
The plot of forest south of Island Lake has been the subject of a bitter controversy for more than a year, with both the camp and some of its neighbors seeking to purchase the land.
The camp wanted to buy the land to assure continued access to nearby forests and trails. Several neighbors wanted to buy the land to keep the camp off and reduce noise and congestion they say is caused when busloads of kids come to the camp, which is based on 35 acres of camp-owned land adjacent to the township park.
County officials at first mulled how to sell the tax-forfeited parcel that had been open to anyone to use. But, in October, 2014, the county board voted instead to give the 80 acres, with state approval, to Fredenberg Township and let town officials decide how best to manage it as public parkland.
Almost immediately, township officials began to exclude Positive Energy and its supporters from the park rulemaking process, said Frank Jewell, St. Louis County commissioner. Jewell said the anti-camp sentiment among town officials and a few neighbors has usurped the county's intention when it gave the land away.
"This is exactly what the majority of the county board did not want to see happen. They (town officials) seem bent on closing this camp," Jewell said. "The township said one thing when we were giving them the land and now they are doing something completely different. It's blatant dishonesty."
Township officials recently met with county staff and said their intention is to exclude any commercial use of the land, not just the camp. But Jewell said that the township's effort to exclude the nonprofit camp could threaten other users, such as access by nonprofit snowmobile clubs to maintain popular trails on the property.
"The agreement was that everyone would be able to continue using the land as they have. Now, that's not the case," Jewell said.
Love said she and Cazier purchased the camp land because it was adjacent to public forest and trails.
"We're really disappointed in how this has turned out," Love told the News Tribune. "Without access to public land, there is no outdoor education. You can't have kayaking and dogsledding and rock climbing unless you can do it on public land. That's why we're here."
Fredenberg Town Chairman Jeff Blix did not immediately return calls left Thursday at his home and at the township office.
Jared Goerlitz, attorney representing Positive Energy Outdoors, last week fired back a letter to the township noting there has been no explanation of why the camp would suddenly be guilty of trespassing on public property.
"We will provide 10 days from the date of this letter to provide a response or consider our own legal action against the Township of Fredenberg," Goerlitz wrote.
The township is expected to pass a new ordinance regarding use of the land at an upcoming meeting.
While some county commissioners have agreed that commercial ventures should not be allowed on public land, others say they agreed to give the land to the township with the express understanding that the camp and other groups or individuals, such as snowmobile clubs, be able to continue to use it.
Jewell says he may seek a county resolution to begin the formal process, through the State Department of Revenue, to take the land back if the township doesn't make arrangements for unfettered public access to the land.
Cazier and Love have been using the 80-acre public parcel since 1997 to access other woods and water for youth camper activities including dogsledding. Access to that land, especially trails to cross it, 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.