County task force findings, comments heard at comprehensive plan meetings

The last of three public meetings wound up in Princeton on Monday in the fourth of five rounds of community discussions to form a new comprehensive plan for Mille Lacs County.MLC-audience
Photo by Joel Stottrup
Audience members at the comprehensive plan public meeting in Milaca last Saturday. They included Mille Lacs County Commissioner Genny Reynolds, Princeton, in front row at left, and Mille Lacs County Administrator Roxy Traxler behind Reynolds.

During this fourth round, community meetings were conducted in Isle January 10, in the historic county courthouse in Milaca January 12, and Monday evening this week in Princeton city hall.

The comp plan agenda in these last three meetings has been to take public comments on the results of task forces assigned to the following subjects:

1. intergovernmental relations

2. social, public health and quality of life programs

3. agriculture and forestry

4. land use.

Nearly a dozen people attended the meeting in Milaca, about half the number that was at the fourth-round meeting in Isle. Jordan Zeller, a planner with the East Central Regional Development Commission, which is coordinating and organizing the various meetings with Mille Lacs County Administrator Roxy Traxler, commented Saturday on the difficulty of predicting attendance numbers. It means sometimes having cookies and refreshments left over as was the case Saturday, he noted.

The county’s last comprehensive plan was done in 1990, and such plans are considered useful for about 7-10 years, according to the plan organizers. A comprehensive plan is a guide formed by community input for the county’s elected officials to look at in forming policies and regulations.

The county board made the decision last fall to update the current plan and create a steering committee consisting of a cross section of county residents. The committee then appointed task forces. Besides the topics mentioned earlier, the other task forces worked on gathering community input on the following topics:

• economic development

• public safety

• transportation

• environment and energy

• recreation and tourism.

The task forces review citizen input, survey results, data, statistics and also use their own knowledge to draft goals and objectives in their assigned topics.

The first round of community meetings were Jan.-March of 2012, during which a community survey was conducted that brought in 1,005 responses out of 3,900 surveys mailed. An electronic survey was also done and it had 123 responses.

The second and third rounds of community meetings took place last June, and September respectively.

Zeller has put some spark into the input meetings, such as on Saturday when he asked a photographer to not photograph his double chin, and when he advised audience members to “tell all your friends and enemies” about the website,, to get more information on the comp plan. When someone brought up a typographical error in one of the documents, Zeller confessed that he was not the world’s best typist.

Here are the objectives in draft form in the four areas discussed in the last three meetings.

Land use objectives

a. Work with stakeholders to review current land use controls and update county zoning ordinances and codes to minimize regulatory impact on county residents and businesses.

b. Encourage the concentration of development and usage in growth centers in order to preserve farm, forest, conservation and open land.

c. Consider aggregate and mining deposit locations when developing zoning regulations.

d. Educate residents, land owners and businesses about land use regulatory controls within Mille Lacs County.

e. Work towards mitigating pollution and nuisance problems related to solid waste.

Each objective has one or more elaborations. For example, in this last objective on pollution and noise, the land use task force encourages responsible hazardous and solid waste disposal and recycling options.

Social, public health & quality of life programs

a. Work with stakeholders including schools, local units of government, businesses, residents and elected officials to create a culture that supports all levels of education.

b. Encourage and support accessible and affordable senior-related programs and activities.

c. Support programs and activities related to improving employment and training opportunities for all residents.

d. Encourage collaboration between stakeholders to support healthy communities in order to increase accessibility and awareness.

e. Work with partners to encourage and support improved/increased communication infrastructure and accessibility.

f. Promote the regional library system and encourage its use.

Agriculture and forestry

a. Maintain and encourage the efficiency, viability, and productivity of the county’s agricultural areas for current and future generations.

b. Concentrate development in growth centers in order to preserve farm and forest land, other conservation lands and open spaces.

c. Promote educational opportunities for residents and private land owners about forestry management practices.

d. Balance development of land with open space conservation.

e. Recognize agriculture and forestry as part of the county’s business community.

The bullet point under this last objective was to include a focus on the ag and forestry industries within the county’s economic development work plan. One of the sub-bullet points was a call for a one-stop clearinghouse for people to navigate through the development process.

Intergovernmental relations

a. Improve and work to better the communications, relations and cooperation between governmental units.

b. Continue to review and when feasible, improve the quality of county services that are provided to residents.

c. Improve citizen education about county government and encourage participation in all levels of county decision making.

One of the points made under this last objective was that the county should continue to make information available through traditional, non-electronic ways. One of the overall recommendations was to make access to information for citizens convenient and less tedious to locate.

Comments from attendees

Several of the comments from the audience at Saturday’s meeting in Milaca were more on sentence structure and wording, than on the substance.

Paula Soderberg, for example, told Zeller she didn’t think the first objective in the intergovernmental relations draft was correct and should be rewritten. Soderberg then explained she was not talking about the content, just that the original statement where it said, “work to make better communications” could be phrased better.

Attendee Carla Vita, Princeton, stated that the county has a lot of educational services that citizens just don’t know about. Vita said she was especially proud of the first objective listed by the social, public health & and quality of life programs task force she has been part of.

Zeller noted that the ag and forestry topic was split off from land use, because of ag and forestry being so important to the county’s economy.

Attendee Debra Gilchrist said she was impressed with how the task forces have been able to narrow down the objectives.

County Administrator Traxler noted that citizens have until January 24 to log onto the county’s website to give input through a mechanism known as Survey Monkey.

Traxler says she hopes the county can complete the writing of the new comprehensive plan in July.

The county will conduct a fifth round of public meetings between now and completion to fine tune the comprehensive plan draft.

Looking at the input from the various community meetings, there is a vocal element calling for less government and regulation, and lower property taxes. There are also some specific requests, such as at a Milaca meeting that stated: “Remove the rocks down by the river,” and “Get rid of strip joint in Bock.”

One of the requests at an Onamia meeting was for a four-lane highway to be completed through the county. The four-lane Highway 169 now goes from Princeton to just north of Onamia.

Some of the comments are personal, such as one person’s response to why they live in the Milaca area, which was “I was born here 77 years ago.”

Rural living and a quest to live in a peaceful area with friendly people was frequently cited as why some Mille Lacs residents choose to live where they do.

At one Princeton meeting, some of the listed weaknesses/threats to the quality of life were mosquitoes, some farming possibly being too intense for the land, run off, water quality, habitat, and distance between the two ends of the county concerning recreation.

County Administrator Traxler on Monday said she thinks the drafting of the comprehensive plan is going well.