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Debate over assembly ordinance picks up momentum

No one showed up at a public hearing a couple of weeks ago to comment on a proposed county assembly ordinance — but they’ve had a whole lot to say about it ever since.

0 Talk about it

At Monday’s meeting of the Carlton County Board, Commissioner Bob Olean reported he has had four to six calls daily about the proposed ordinance, which would require a permit for residents of most of the county’s townships in order to hold a large event on private land.

“People didn’t realize this was happening,” said Olean. He acknowledged that although notice of the public hearing was printed in the county’s legal newspaper, chances are that not many actually read it.

The Board also reported receiving a letter regarding the assembly ordinance from Tom Bislow, owner of TJ’s Country Corner in Mahtowa, stating that such an ordinance would add “yet another cost of doing business to the already overburdening laws, with regulations, fees and inspections.” Bislow hosts numerous events every year in the outdoor space near his business.

Betty and Leonard Anderson of County Road 7 in Mahtowa were in attendance at Monday’s meeting. The Andersons had asked to be included on the meeting agenda to address concerns over the proposed assembly ordinance. Leonard explained that their concerns were based primarily on the constitutional right of citizens to assemble.

“It goes back to the time people were granted the right to assemble in order to protest the government,” explained Anderson, referencing an early effort to curtail those rights in Fairfax, Va., in 1930, when Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis ruled that “public discussion is a public duty.”

Leonard Anderson went on to object to the “discretionary” nature of Carlton County’s assembly ordinance, giving commissioners the right to waive the permit, the fee, or both for certain parties if deemed fitting. Anderson questioned how such events as weddings, graduation parties, farmers’ markets, auctions, rummage sales, the Rat Rod competition and the annual bike ride that goes through Mahtowa would be viewed in light of such an ordinance. He further pointed out the Park Lake Bible Camp and various religious gatherings.

Paul Gassert, county auditor/treasurer, explained that religious gatherings, community events, auctions, reunions, weddings and those types of event would be exempt under the current wording of the proposed ordinance.

Anderson added that he finds the suggested $500 permit fee for an assembly on private land “bothersome” and questioned if there might be other ways to deal with regulating such events in lieu of a costly and restrictive ordinance.

Sheriff Kelly Lake explained that the city of Cloquet already has such an ordinance and has learned how to live with it, pointing out that many other cities and counties around the state have had such ordinances on the books for years.

“The purpose is to regulate things ahead of time to help protect public safety,” said Lake. “I personally don’t care if there’s any fee for it at all.”

Anderson’s wife, Betty, had concerns of her own. Since the Fond du Lac Reservation would be exempt from the ordinance, she said it may cause problems between neighbors.

“I am adamantly against this,” said Betty. “How do you distinguish the non-Indians who live on the reservation and make them abide by this ordinance when the enrolled members [of which she is one] don’t have to? That’s not fair to all and I can see that could cause some contention. Little by little our freedoms are being removed from the individual.”

Heather Cunningham, zoning and environmental affairs director, said the state of Minnesota has given counties and other governmental bodies the right to regulate certain events for the sake of public safety.

“We are not trying to regulate what’s being said, or the right to free speech,” Cunningham clarified.

Betty Anderson said she believes the majority of people are “very responsible” and could work things out between them if a neighbor plans a large event.

“What if you did that and that neighbor told you to take a hike?” questioned Commissioner Marv Bodie. “One person not showing respect for their neighbors can make life miserable for everyone.”

“I would just ask them to ‘keep it down’ and tell them if not, we would call 911,” responded Betty.

Cunningham and Lake were somewhat skeptical that would work in at least some instances.

“If someone planned an event with seven bands, served alcohol and no one had any say about it, and if our deputies got called in because someone complained about it, what are we supposed to do with that?” said Lake. “Unfortunately there is a small part of the population who’s not very responsible. We need to try to be proactive in dealing with that.”

“Would 3,000 people on 30 acres right next to you concern you?” posed Cunningham. “[Without an ordinance] there would be no signage to control traffic, no guarantees of safe food service or garbage removal, and people going to the bathroom in the woods.”

Commissioner Gary Peterson questioned how the county has gotten by without such an ordinance up until this time. Gassert replied that a number of problem incidents prompted phone calls to county commissioners, and that was what precipitated looking into what types of assembly ordinances other counties are using to help regulate such incidents.

Board Chair Dick Brenner asked Lake if her office has responded to many such nuisance calls in recent months, citing he only knows of one. Lake said overall there haven’t been any large events held on private land in the county, except for the recent rodeo in Wrenshall which Cunningham said was regulated through a conditional use permit (with 36 conditions attached) for lack of a more suitable ordinance.

“Are we trying to put a big Band-Aid on something that’s actually small?” questioned Leonard Anderson.

In the end, Brenner polled each of the commissioners regarding how, or if, to move forward on the proposed ordinance. Peterson said he is opposed to it, Proulx said he is “having some trouble with the fee amount,” Bodie said he believes it still needs “fine tuning,” and Olean said he is “not ready to move forward with it at this time.”

Brenner brought the discussion to a close and said the Board will continue to fine-tune the ordinance further and discuss it at the next meeting.

(Editor’s note: The cities of Moose Lake and Cloquet, as well as Thomson Township, are exempt from the proposed ordinance because they have their own zoning departments.)