May Township to vote on measure that could block youth camp on Wilder Forest land

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			May Township to vote on measure that could block youth camp on Wilder Forest land
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The future of a proposed Catholic youth camp at Wilder Forest could be decided on Tuesday.

The May Township board has called a special meeting for 10 a.m. Tuesday at the May Town Hall to discuss proposed amendments to its comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance. The township’s planning commission last month voted to recommend that the town board exclude “youth, camp” as a conditional use within the township’s conservancy zoning district.

The recommendation, made at the township’s planning commission meeting Oct. 27, immediately came under fire by officials from the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, who argued the proposed amendments were “arbitrary and capricious.”

Wilder Foundation officials in September announced plans to sell the 600 acres of land it owns in northern Washington County to the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership. The Medina-based Catholic organization plans to open an overnight summer camp and winter retreat center on the site, hosting up to 200 middle-school campers a week during the summer.

The land is currently home to River Grove charter school. The K-6 school, known officially as Marine Area Community School, is housed in several cottages that used to be leased by Concordia Language Villages.

Many parents and community members have objected to the sale, including State Sen. Karin Housley (R-Stillwater).

In a Nov. 2 letter sent to township officials, an attorney for Wilder wrote that “based on the comments of the public and the planning commission members” during the Oct. 27 meeting, the recommendation to exclude “youth, camp” as a conditional use was “based on a desire to prevent … the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership from using Wilder Foundation’s property for the partnership’s intended use in the apparent belief that doing so would permit Wilder Foundation’s current tenant, Marine Area Community School (a/k/a River Grove) to continue to use the property.”

Amending the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance for that reason would violate Minnesota law, attorney Thomas Bray wrote.

The lease between Wilder Foundation and River Grove expires on June 30, 2023. Whether or not the town board adopts the proposed amendments to the township’s comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance, the school must vacate Wilder Foundation’s property on or before June 30, 2023, according to Bray.

Bray also wrote that Wilder may be forced to take legal action “to protect its rights (given) the township’s recent and potentially ongoing efforts to frustrate Wilder Foundation’s ability to sell Wilder Forest.”

Lake association weighs in

The Square Lake Association, a citizens group dedicated to protecting and preserving Square Lake, also has weighed in. In a Nov. 16 letter to the town board, the association’s attorney wrote that the proposed amendments “are fully consistent with and reasonably related to the township’s land use goals and the overarching purpose of the conservancy district, and are fully supported by findings of fact in the record.”

Lake Association attorney Andrew Davis wrote that the amendments “are reasonably related to the township’s interest in controlling development, limiting traffic and preserving the unique character of the area. They are supported by a rational basis and a well-developed record, and are fully consistent with Minnesota law.”

The May Township board in July 2021 enacted a moratorium on the consideration of any new uses, expansion of existing uses, and issuance of permits for uses within conservancy districts. That moratorium expires on Nov. 30.

“Wilder may be frustrated with the amendments, but that frustration does not render the amendments arbitrary and capricious or lacking a rational basis,” Davis wrote. “Although Wilder accuses the township of ‘frustrat[ing] [Wilder’s] ability to sell Wilder Forest,’ the fact remains that the moratorium has been in place since July 2021. There is simply no evidence to support Wilder’s assertion that the amendments are somehow intended to ‘frustrate’ Wilder’s ability to sell the property.”

Camp allowed under current rules

Town Board Chairman John Adams said a camp is allowed on the property under the conditional use permit issued in 1991.

“I believe there was a misunderstanding as to the purpose of the “youth, camp” paragraph,” he said. “I believe that people in the audience at the planning commission meeting thought we are opening Wilder to camping when it’s already open to camping. They were under the impression that (this) addressed something new. Camps are not new. They’ve been there for 30 years. … We can’t very well say ‘no’ to a camp because they’ve been allowed on Wilder for 30 years.”

Excluding the “youth, camp” language from the amendments “would actually be a deficit to the ability of the township to manage camping usage,” he said. “They believe that it opened a door maybe, but there was no door to open. It’s already open.”

When asked how he expected the three-member board to vote on Tuesday morning, Adams said: “I honestly don’t know. It’s a tossup as far as I can see. Based on the comments made at the (last) board meeting, it could go either way.”

Hope for River Grove school

Regardless of the vote, there may be a temporary solution in sight for River Grove.

Officials from the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership have told school officials that it might be possible for the school to remain on site until the end of the 2023-24 school year. “We have great sympathy for your community and how this unwelcome situation is disruptive and hard on students, parents and staff,” Partnership President Tim Healy wrote in a letter to school officials on Nov. 17. “It is our sincere hope that we can minimize that disruption and help the school in its transition.”

In order to do so, he wrote, partnership officials would have to know “what work – if any – has been done to secure a new location for the school, a preferred timetable for moving the school and how school-related activities and uses could safely and productively co-exist on site with any preparatory work we may undertake.”

Drew Goodson, the school’s executive director, said Friday that school officials are willing to have a conversation with partnership officials, but that they would “need to show us that they are in a position to offer assistance.”

School officials believe that “Wilder, and only Wilder, as the current landlord, has the authority to enter into a lease-extension agreement, as there is no guarantee that the proposed land sale will be successful and completed before June 30, 2023,” he wrote in a letter to Partnership officials.

If Wilder were to present the school with a 14-month lease extension, “we would highly consider it,” but Wilder has made it clear that the school must vacate the premises by June 30, Goodson said.

“By continuing to push this sale through, against the will and desire of the community, it shows they clearly aren’t listening and do not desire to be a part of any solution,” Goodson said. “If Wilder wants to do the right thing, they would immediately offer us a 14-month lease extension to minimize the impact to our students and families, along with pursuing a buyer that is not proposing a dangerous non-conservation-minded use.”

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