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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

County board takes up full agenda during Morse meeting

Catie Clark
Posted 1/11/23

MORSE TWP- St. Louis County commissioners, meeting here on Tuesday, heard support for a land exchange that would protect just over 1,000 acres of bird habitat in the Sax-Zim Bog, a location in …

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County board takes up full agenda during Morse meeting


MORSE TWP- St. Louis County commissioners, meeting here on Tuesday, heard support for a land exchange that would protect just over 1,000 acres of bird habitat in the Sax-Zim Bog, a location in central St. Louis County that has become a mecca for birders from around the world.
The town hall here was packed as the commissioners addressed a number of other issues as well.
The discussion of the Sax-Zim Bog came as part of a public hearing on the proposed exchange of lands between the county and the non-profit group, The Conservation Fund. The group is proposing to exchange 542 acres east of Orr, appraised at $529,000 and appropriate for timber and recreation uses for 1,010 acres of tax-forfeited land in and around Sax-Zim, located southeast of Hibbing.
Jason Meyer, deputy director of the St. Louis County Land and Minerals Department presented the proposed exchange to the commissioners, noting that all the state requirements for such a land swap have been met and that both parties would benefit from the exchange. He said for the land swap to go forward, the commissioners needed to vote to recommend the exchange “for final approval by the state licensing board.”
Becky Rom of Morse testified during the public hearing in favor of the exchange, “The Sax-Zim Bog is an area known nationally as a spectacular and important boreal bird habitat. People come from all over the country to visit it. Transfer of the tax forfeited land within the bog to the Conservation Fund will lead to a subsequent conveyance to the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog, (which is) the conservation group that will be maintaining it as healthy complex habitat for boreal birds.”
Well-known Ely birder and guide Bill Tefft also testified in favor of the exchange, echoing Rom’s remarks. “I would speak in favor of making this (exchange). I don’t see any detrimental aspects whatsoever,” he added.
The county commissioners unanimously voted to recommend the exchange to the Minnesota Land Exchange Board.
Other business
The meeting got off to a raucous start with four residents from Fredenberg Township, on the outskirts of Duluth, who gave public input to complain about a gravel pit located near their homes. The pit operator, LTI Holdings, received a conditional use permit from the county in 2020. The pit’s neighbors failed their attempt to receive a court injunction to stop pit activities in 2021.
The most dramatic of the four who testified was Bruce Anderson of Duluth who played a five-minute recording of the noise from the pit as heard from a neighboring property.
Short term rental
The commissioners also held a public hearing on changes to the county’s ordinances regulating short term rentals. Deputy county administrator Brian Firtsinger explained the reasons for the proposed changes, “As we started enforcing the licensing and permitting of those (short term rentals), a number of different questions were raised over this period of time in the planning commission, (leading the commission) to take a closer look.” Firtsinger noted that the original short-term rental ordinance was passed in 2020.
That closer look by the planning commission led to a first public hearing in November on proposed changes. These changes include:
• A new land use definition for Commercial Short-Term Rental.
• Clarifications to the Commercial, Retail and Service Establishments – Class II land-use category to include Commercial Short-Term Rental.
• The addition of standards for reestablishing short term rental use after a change in ownership on a parcel.
• Clarification of where a conditional use permit is required.
• The addition of Minnesota Department of Health lodging license requirements for short term rentals.
• The addition of residential zoning district requirements for short term rentals.
• The addition of minimum liability insurance requirements, including naming the county as an additional insured on the short-term rental insurance policy.
The commissioners discussed the insurance requirements with Jenny Bourbonais, the county’s planning manager. Some commissioners have received feedback on the insurance requirement from short term rental owners complaining that their property is already fully-insured so why do they need to go above and beyond?
Bourbonais explained that the county used the same liability numbers required of contractors with the county but remarked that extending those to short-term rentals wasn’t “apple to apples.” “It’s a little bit of a struggle for us with that language, being applicable to permits versus contracts,” Bourbonais added. “It makes a lot of sense for the contracts that are out there that we work with … Short term rental permitting is a little bit different.”
Two people testified on the issue. The first was a gentleman who did not give his name and identified himself as “on the town board” of a town he did not name. He expressed concerns that short-term rental properties would not be assessed for taxable value properly if and when the properties reverted to residences.
The second testifier was Melissa Bell of Fredenberg, who opposed the ordinance changes because she believed the county was incapable of enforcing standards fairly. “I’ve been told many times (that the county) does not have the manpower to regulate conditions and standards. If our department is so overworked already, what is the solution because I’ve seen double standards. I’ve seen big business get away with whatever they want and everyone turns their eyes (away), but small businesses, homeowners trying to keep up the property taxes and make a little extra money, they’re gonna get handed all these regulations,” she said.
Bell then cited an example of a short-term rental regulation violation she knew of. She questioned where the enforcement was and why there was no penalty applied, concluding that, “Right now anyone who doesn’t want to comply to your standards, in my opinion, doesn’t have to … I like rules but they have to be the same for everybody.”
At the conclusion of the public hearing, the county commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the proposed changes and additions to the short-term rental ordinance.
Emergency declaration
At the recommendation of St. Louis County Administrator, Kevin Gray, the commissioners voted unanimously to declare a state of emergency for the county as the result of the winter storm event that started on Dec. 13, 2022. Making such a declaration allows the county to apply for state and federal disaster relief funds to help defray the costs of emergency response efforts which were needed to recover from the damage done by the storm.


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