EAGLES NEST TWP— Township officials here are expected to decide next Tuesday whether to take possession of a small portion of land, dedicated to the public back in 1928, to build a road access …
EAGLES NEST TWP— Township officials here are expected to decide next Tuesday whether to take possession of a small portion of land, dedicated to the public back in 1928, to build a road access for a fire department water source on Eagles Nest Lake One. It might seem a small matter, but it’s a proposal that has generated considerable consternation with nearby property owners who worry both about the cost of the road and, perhaps most importantly, that land they’ve essentially had to themselves for years could be opened up to regular public use.
Also at issue is several hundred feet of shoreline that lies in a narrow strip along the eastern shoreline of the lake, just off the Bear Head Lake State Park Road, the township’s main thoroughfare. The shoreline, part of the same plat, was also dedicated to the public nearly a century ago, but was never accessible from the land, since the platted roads were never built. It was all part of an unusual plat, known as Rearrangement Eagle Nest, which created dozens of tiny lots as part of a subdivision created by the late Mathew M. O’Meara. The lots that O’Meara expected to sell were located just off the lake and, as part of the plat, O’Meara deeded land along the lakeshore as well as easements for streets to the public, apparently anticiptingt it could be used as common property by all of the owners he expected to purchase the lots in his new subdivision.
The 1929 stock market collapse and subsequent Great Depression ended such land speculation in the area for some time and O’Meara’s planned lake community never came to fruition. The lots eventually did sell, but as entire blocks, not as the individual lots that O’Meara had envisioned. Rather than dozens of summer homes, the subdivision is home to four summer cabins and a couple year-round residences.
But with the exception of one resident, none of the property owners in the subdivision actually own the lakeshore in front of their summer homes, although they have in most cases made use of the frontage as if it were their own, maintaining docks, boat lifts, or other improvements.
The situation was highly beneficial to the property owners, because they were spared the high taxes that typically come with lake frontage. In one instance, for example, a property owner ended up purchasing six parcels, totaling almost two acres, but pays anywhere from $6 to $20 dollars a year in property taxes on several of the parcels. They pay more on the parcel that includes a small cabin but in total the owners pay just $450 a year in property taxes for all of their land. They don’t pay anything on the public lot located on the lakeshore in front of their cabin, but they do maintain a dock there and effectively enjoy about 300 feet of shoreline as their own.
Adjacent properties in a neighboring plat pay several times that amount, mostly because they also own their lake frontage, which significantly inflates their land’s value.
While some property owners in Rearrangement Eagle Nest benefitted from the lower taxes the unusual plat made possible, they now face the unwelcome possibility that land they had long used as their own could be opened to at least some public use.
“They would put the road right in our front yard,” said David Kromer, of Ely, who has owned one of the properties in the plat for almost a decade. “We bought it for the privacy,” said Kromer, who noted that he can’t see any of the neighboring cabins from his yard. “It’s pretty unfair what they’re doing.”
Under the township’s plan, the road in question, named Spruce Street on the original plat, would be built to create an access to the lake for the township’s fire department, which is located right across Bear Head Lake State Park Road from the property. The road would run adjacent to the south side of Kromer’s property and on the north side of property owned by Ryan Asa, of Indiana, according to county records.
Kromer argues that the fire department doesn’t need any more water. He said the fire hall already has a 10,000-gallon water tank and two other dry hydrants located within a few miles of the hall, in addition to almost 3,000 gallons of water on the department’s engine-pumper and tender. In addition, he said, the township has mutual aid agreements with neighboring departments which would respond with additional resources in the event of a significant fire.
Fire Chief Larry McCray disagrees. “A fully-involved house fire will take 20,000-30,000 gallons,” said McCray, or significantly more than the township has readily available. He said having quick access to the lake as a water source would provide the fire department with a virtually limitless supply of water.
While the township does have a 10,000-gallon tank at the fire hall, McCray notes that the tank still has to be refilled, something which cannot realistically be done with the well and garden hose available at the fire hall.
Access to the Eagles Nest lakes has traditionally been jealously guarded by local residents, who have opposed the installation of public landings in the past. That’s one reason that Kromer and a couple neighbors asked the township several years ago to vacate some of the platted roads designated in the plat. Kromer said he would prefer to take possession, and pay taxes, on the lakeshore property in front of his cabin, as well as the corridor designated for Spruce Street, but the township eventually declined their request for road vacation after some neighbors in the area objected.
The township isn’t proposing a public landing at the end of Spruce Street, although the installation of a dock has been discussed. Township officials say a dock could facilitate water evacuations from other parts of the lake in the event a wildfire cut off Walsh Road and prevented residents from leaving the path of the fire. Township officials have been among the most proactive in the area in pre-planning for wildfire events, in part because the township has dozens of dead-end roads that wind through otherwise nearly unbroken expanses of flammable forest.
For now, the controversy has centered on the construction of Spruce Street, but the township has also formed a committee to examine possible uses for the publicly-owned lakeshore in the plat, which is designated as park land. So far, the township hasn’t decided to accept the property or do anything with it, and town board chair Rich Floyd said he’s leaning against doing so out of concerns over the cost of maintenance. “Once we accept it, we are responsible for it in perpetuity,” he said. With two outstanding state parks nearby, Floyd wonders how much use the area would actually receive if the township made it into a park.
A committee appointed by the town board is currently exploring those issues and is expected to make a recommendation later this year on whether the township should accept the park land and develop it for public use. That same committee has already recommended that the township develop Spruce Street, although Floyd said it’s not clear that was ever part of the committee’s mandate.
The controversy over the use of the lands in the plat has some township residents pointing fingers. In a letter to members of the Eagles Nest Town Board, which was also sent to the Timberjay, township resident Donna Carlson argues that the town board has failed to adequately determine the cost of building and maintaining the road along with a planned turnaround by the lake. At a meeting last year, Carlson suggested the road and related facilities could cost upwards of a million dollars.
Township officials put the cost of the road at a more affordable $33,000, although opponents say that doesn’t include the cost of a survey and other expenses.
Carlson is also suggesting that the township’s fire chief has a conflict of interest in advancing the project. She notes that McCray owns land-locked property near the proposed Spruce Street, which she said would increase the value of his property by giving him access to lake frontage.
That’s unlikely, given that McCray’s access would be no different from any other property owner in the township. And direct access to the frontage the current plat affords to cabin owners like Kromer and Asa, does not appear to have boosted their property values, which are set significantly lower than nearby properties in adjacent plats that actually include lakeshore.
Yet McCray doesn’t hide the fact that he thinks some of his neighbors have taken advantage of the circumstances of their unusual plat. “They’ve put docks in the water and boat lifts, all on land that doesn’t belong to them,” said McCray. “They don’t own the property. They don’t pay taxes. They have the benefit of lakeshore without having to pay for it. That’s their objection… that would be interrupted.”
Based on letters to board members, Carlson appears to be in the minority with her concerns. The town board asked the public to weigh in on the road proposal ahead of next Tuesday’s meeting. As of earlier this week, Floyd said the township had received about ten written responses from residents, all but one in favor of building the road.
As for the park lands, the future of those could remain in limbo for the foreseeable future. While Floyd said he’s leaning against accepting those lands for public use, he also doesn’t favor vacating the public dedication. “I’m not sure we would want to simply vacate those lands,” he said. “They’re worth a lot of money.”