County approves first recreational master plan

Milaca – Commissioners approved Mille Lacs County’s first parks and trails master plan at its May 2 meeting after Michele McPherson, county land services director, explained that approval of the plan opens a door to grant funding opportunities the county could not access without the plan. Development of the master plan began nearly two years ago and underwent a public input process in 2016.
McPherson said the next steps will be to develop individual master plans for priority projects such as extensions of the Great Northern Trail and partnerships with surrounding cities to develop projects. The commissioners asked specifically about rights of way for something like the Great Northern Trail. It follows an old railroad bed, and parts of that bed are privately owned by people who do not wish to have a trail developed.
They generally asked, What happens to the plan if a landowner doesn’t want the trail there?
McPherson said right of way investigations would be part of the master planning process. That is generally the time the county would identify a priority concept, such as a leg of the trail, and then analyze the needs to develop it. For example, a trail master plan would include an analysis of project limits, land ownership, potential amenities, projected costs and more.
After an analysis, county staff would come before the board with results of the research and recommendations of how to proceed. It was mentioned that the process is not likely to move fast.
Commissioners asked if eminent domain could be used to make the trail happen. McPherson said it is possible but not likely because different segments can be developed at different times. She said if an owner is against a trail segment near them, then the trail project could wait until ownership or attitudes changed instead of “taking” land for it.
Commissioner Tim Wilhelm asked about liability on the trail. Would the county be responsible if someone had an accident or got hurt? The group agreed to consult with county attorneys about the question.
Commissioner David Oslin commented that the parks and trails master plan is dynamic and will change and evolve over many years. Commissioner Phil Peterson said it’s also possible that the plan could sit on a shelf and collect dust because how much of the plan is implemented depends a lot upon budget and what the County Board approves.
McPherson said the master plan, which the commissioners approved unanimously, is the first and preliminary step toward parks and trails development in the county. She said the document identifies partner plans with Princeton and Milaca, and it will drive the county’s work.