Mille Lacs closer to completing new comprehensive plan

After nearly two years of public-input meetings to draft a new comprehensive plan, Mille Lacs County appears to be nearing completion of the document.

The Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners at its Sept. 17 meeting approved a number of changes in the draft in response to suggested changes by the county Planning Commission.

The board ended up accepting all of the commission’s recommendations except a change in the intergovernmental relations section. That part covers what has been a touchy subject for the county and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe: the size of what government officials and the Mille Lacs Band have defined as “Indian Country” in Mille Lacs County.

The county spent more than a million dollars about a decade ago in a lawsuit trying to get a federal court ruling on whether the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has a reservation of 61,000 acres that the county contended was disestablished in 1855. The lawsuit, in which First National Bank of Milaca joined in with the county, came to an end with the lawsuit’s dismissal on May 6, 2003, by federal judge James Rosenbaum in St. Paul. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider any appeal of the dismissal.

The Planning Commission recommended that the new comprehensive plan draft have the following words in the Intergovernmental Relations section’s objective: “Continue to partner with the State of Minnesota in efforts to maintain Indian Country as the existing 1,800 acres currently in trust for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.”

Mille Lacs County Land Services Director and Recorder Michele McPherson, who works with the Planning Commission, told the county commissioners that the commission felt the recommended wording would be “softer” than the original words. The commission felt the original wording was “very in-your-face, very confrontational,” McPherson said.

The original wording, which was written by the plan’s steering committee, stated: “Continue to partner with the State of Minnesota in opposing all efforts to expand Indian Country beyond the approximately 1,800 acres the United States has placed into trust for the Mille Lacs Band.”

The county commissioners had the choice on Sept. 17 of either accepting the commission’s recommendation, accepting the steering committee’s original draft, or modifying the language. The commissioners chose to adopt the original wording with one modification. That was to change “1,800 acres” to say “about 2,400 acres.”

The changes that the County Board approved Sept. 17 will be incorporated into the full draft of the comprehensive plan that is still in development. The public will be able to give input on the plan draft during the board’s Oct. 1 meeting, set for 9 a.m. in the Historic Courthouse.

The board, with public input, could further modify the draft before it takes any action to approve the plan. The board does not have to follow the comprehensive plan once adopting it, but the board will be able to use it as a guide.