“Voters: If you don’t like the way they voted–wait for the next election, and vote the bums out.”
Though his words were more carefully articulated, that was the thrust of the message when Scambler Town Board chairman cast the deciding vote on a controversial zoning revision. At issue was a change that could open up the largely agricultural township to more residential development.
“If you’re not happy, you can run for the township board…and (the ordinance) can be changed back,” said Chairman Dave Ritchie. “It’s tough to find people to do this job, especially with this situation. …You make enemies out of friends, and friends out of enemies…It’s not fun.”
With those comments, Ritchie cast the final vote. The motion to “relax” building requirements was approved by a 3-2 vote, at the Nov. 14 Scambler Township Board meeting.
With that vote, Scambler board members were either “bums,” “rascals” or “heroes,” depending on your point of view.
Town board members acknowledged that Scambler residents and property owners were about evenly divided – 50-50 – in favoring, or opposing the zoning change. Ritchie said he spent ten hours on the phone in recent days, responding to questions on both sides of the issue.
Town board service, or any smaller government office, can be a thankless job. Long-simmering proposals to modify the township’s restrictive “farmland preservation” zoning finally came to a head in the last few months.
“Save the farmland” rules date back nearly 3 decades
The original ordinance dates to about 1991, with revisions in the mid-2000s. The ordinance, in effect, limits 2.5 acre residential lots, to two dwellings per 40 acres.
At the time it was drafted, nearly 30 years ago, authors were no doubt tuned into the suburban Twin Cities metro area–where farmland was being gobbled up at a rapid pace. “Ag preservation” measures were conceived in some jurisdictions; not only to protect farmland, but preserve some rural character in growing residential areas. Higher density development was intended in the Pelican Lake area on the east side of the township, and along the County 9 and Highway 59 corridors.
But times have changed.
There is a severe housing shortage projected, as pointed out by Otter Tail county Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who was in the audience at the meeting.
There is a growing demand for rural-residential homes.
Scambler residents, about half of them it seems, believe the ordinance is too strict.
The revision approved last week will reduce lot sizes to 2.5 acres. But lakeshore setbacks, wetland restrictions and other conditions will still apply.
For the second time in three months, the Scambler Town Hall was at near capacity.
Tense, 3-2 split vote
The vote, in favor of the zoning change:
Mike Johnson, yes
Erick Johnson, yes
Dave Ritchie, yes
Dennis Carlblom, no
Todd Langseth, no
The town board limited the discussion prior to the vote to 15 minutes. Chairman Ritchie said that the issue had been aired extensively at prior meetings.
(See related story with excerpts of dialogue at Nov. 14 meeting.)
The discussion revealed some apparent personality clashes and long-standing differences among neighbors and past-present township officers.
Hints of conflict of interest raised over ordinance change
“Conflict of Interest” hints have surfaced over the last several months, particularly aimed at town boardsman Mike Johnson. The allegation: that the relaxed ordinance would enable him to profit from land development or transactions.
Former township officer Les Rotz even publicly cautioned the board, prior to the vote, that a conflict of interest conviction could not only overturn the vote–but also raise the prospect of removal from office, up to $3,000 in fines, and even jail time.
In response, Johnson said he “will ignore” the personal accusations. Regardless of his land ownership, Johnson has been an advocate of modifying the ordinance to allow any property owner more flexibility. “I’ve spoken one on one with a large group of people…and I gave my word I would run with this as far as I could.”
Among other issues, Johnson noted:
• At least one potential home builder was denied to build on an 11 acre parcel, because of the peculiarities of the acreage language in the ordinance.
• “Simplification” was another motivation for the change, said Johnson. “The township spent $2,300 in just interpreting, to outside lawyers…That’s not being financially responsible.”
Boardsman Carlblom votes “No” to ordinance change
“Too liberal” was how board member Carlblom described the change. “My position is that some things need to be changed…but this opens too many cans of worms.”
Despite his “No” vote, Carlblom discounted the “conflict of interest” implications. “We all own property…Almost everything we deal with as a board affects us as property owners. I think there has been some injustice done in the claims of conflict of interest.”
For board member Todd Langseth, his “No” vote was largely a response to the discussions he’s had with constituents: Most of them are simply concerned that ordinance changes will alter the rural, countryside character of Scambler.
Cormorant area “hyper-development” concerns raised
Board member Erick Johnson said that the fears of rampant Cormorant-style shed development were over-dramatized.
“I don’t see Cormorant happening here,” said Johnson. The scattered structures northeast of Cormorant Village commonly referred to is actually in Lake Eunice Township, and was under the jurisdiction of Becker County.
“There is growth and progress in the area….but I don’t feel it will be as drastic as everybody thinks,” said Erick Johnson, who believes the township will still have enough mechanisms in place to ensure orderly development.
Scambler is among the very few townships with a localized zoning ordinance. Most simply turn most land use and development matters over to county jurisdiction.
In his concluding remarks, Chairman Ritchie said the distinct, local ordinance makes Scambler something of an island between the Pelican lakes area of neighboring Dunn Township, and the Pelican Rapids “suburb” of Pelican Township to the south. He said that Scambler was too restrictive, relative to the surrounding area’s growth.
“Are we going to get inundated with development if we change the ordinance?” asked Ritchie, rhetorically. “I don’t think so.”
But, by Ritchie’s own estimation, about half of his Scambler Township friends, neighbors and fellow property owners have been begging to differ for the past several months.