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Friday, April 3, 2009

Increased Public Access at Lake Madison Receives Overwhelming Popular Support

The Lake County Commission gave their bosses (hey, that's us!) a chance last night to bat around the idea of opening up the old county poor farm on Lake Madison as a public access area. And once again, the commission heard overwhelming support for the idea of preserving one more piece of Lake Madison for public enjoyment.

I was a little worried that the weather might keep people away: bright sunny spring evening, no wind—who wants to sit inside and jaw when they could be fishing? But when I pulled into the 4-H grounds, I found the lot filled with pickup trucks and other fishing-friendly vehicles. Inside were 50-odd people (go ahead, say it: we're from Lake County, so we're all a little odd) ready to talk about parks, recreation, and even the future of our county.

The meeting was mostly civil (Linda Hilde got some grumbly responses), occasionally off-topic (flush toilets? come on, fellas, we're fishing, not spending the night), and wholly worthwhile. Commission chair Bert Verhey turned the gavel—or, in this case, the superfluous and non-functional microphone—over to Commissioner Scott Pedersen, who laid out the deal he and fellow Commissioner Chris Giles have worked out on the Lake Madison Public Access Committee with the local Game Fish & Parks officials:
  • Perpetual easement is out: Lake County will lease the lakeside portion of the poor farm to GF&P for $1 a year.
  • The county will evaluate the lease each year. If the county sees folks making good use of the public access area (hint!), they'll renew the lease. If the area isn't getting used or if the county is hard up for cash, they'll nix the lease so they can sell the land for development.
  • Conservation Officer Brandon Gust will have primary jurisdiction over the site.
  • Parks manager Vicky Seger and her crew will handle clean-up.
  • GF&P will put in a dock for fishing, but no boat ramp.
  • The county will upgrade and maintain the access road from County Road 42.
  • The county will also add curbstops and fence.
  • The access area will be open spring, summer, and fall; the county doesn't plan to clear snow to the shore through the winter.
The 45 minutes of public questions and comments spent a perhaps inordinate amount of time on the issue of toilets. But I suppose the interest in where visitors can relieve themselves demonstrates that folks really don't want to upset the neighbors by having to take a leak in the trees. The county thinks porta-potties are the best solution: move them in and out with the seasons, place them where convenient, let the vendor handle all the cleaning and maintenance, and avoid placing permanent infrastructure until the county knows whether there will be sufficient demand for the public access area to keep it going. The Lake Madison Sanitary District will have to rule on that, though, since current regs prohibit such installations.

The county has no firm plans for other upgrades. "Crawl before we walk, walk before we run" was Pedersen's mantra. The county is leaving the door open for other civic groups like 4-H to suggest and carry out improvements like planting trees and building picnic shelters. One attendee said that if the county opens this access area, local groups will jump at the chance to offer improvements. We'll see—maybe a little volunteerism will build us more park than the county expects!

The county will spend money on this project. Quite appropriately, that funding will come from the $100,000 the county made selling nine acres of the poor farm to Sioux Falls developer Ted Thoms last year. I like that: we get money by selling a portion of the land for private use, and then we use that same money to preserve another portion of the poor farm for everyone to enjoy.

Ron Barthel did a good job of exploring the project from different angles. Folks thought he sounded like an opponent of the public access area, but I think Ron just wanted to bring up possible problems and make sure we'd thought them through. He noted that he had walked down to the shoreline and paced off the length (States Attorney Ken Meyer was present but did not issue an indictment for trespassing). He noted that developers could fit a fair number of houses (844 feet, average lot width 100 feet: that's 8 or 9 lots) along that shoreline and generate a lot of tax dollars. Commissioner Pederson emphasized that, with the one-year lease, that's an option the county will keep open if times get tough. But Pedersen noted that the commission is not hard up for cash now... at least not hard up enough to make the commission give up this public land.

Barthel also mentioned the possibility that fishermen and swimmers might not get along. Ruth Heidelberger (yay, Mom!) responded that in her 30+ years of living by the public access area on the west side of Lake Herman, she's seen fishermen, boaters, swimmers, and dogs all use the boat ramp and dock and get along just fine. We can make this new area work; we just all need to act like good neighbors.

Dick Wiedenman did bike down to the meeting (he's getting more bike miles in than I am—I'm envious!) and suggested that a one-year lease isn't long enough. If we want to see GF&P and local groups really invest in improvements in the area, Wiedenman says the county should issue at least a five-year lease. However, as Steve VanderBeek of GF&P noted, even five years isn't long enough to make a difference in their planning. For instance, a concrete boat ramp has a lifetime of 20 years, so they won't install that concrete if they might lose that investment after just five years.

Deep down, I get the impression a lot of people and maybe even the commission would like to see the public access area made permanent. The one-year lease idea is a fair compromise to get a few more people on board and keep options open... but I hope it works out that we don't need any other option, and that opening the land for public use establishes a foothold for turning the entire poor farm into a free public park.

Not everyone shares that hope. Linda Hilde was present to voice her concerns, motivated by her previously stated desire to see the land developed. (I guess some people just can't have enough neighbors in half-million dollar houses.) Hilde expressed her concern that the current shelterbelt there is a mess and could catch fire at the drop of a match. She also warned the county that they need to study the potential changes to traffic patterns that the public access area may cause. There are already 75 or so homes down that county road, and Hilde says additional traffic turning off the highway could create a safety issue.

I didn't offer this response last night, but if the county really wants to look at traffic patterns, I would encourage the commissioners to come look at the traffic patterns out here at Lake Herman. The turn-off to the lake access road here on the west side lies in a sudden valley with much-too-brief visibility in either direction. If you're bombing south along 451st Avenue, come over the hill by the A-frame house, and see a car slowing down to turn onto the lake access road, you have maybe four seconds to hit your brakes. No wrecks yet. I also have yet to see a traffic jam at the Lake Herman State Park entrance or a major wreck at either the Prairie Village entrance or exit during the height of the Jamboree.

But I gave credit to Ron for exploring all sides of the issue, so I'll give Linda the same credit.

The county did not gather to make a final decision last night, and their plans do hinge to some extent on what the Lake Madison Sanitary District says at its April 14th meeting. But the commission did accede to the call for a show of hands. The commissioners abstained, but of the folks in the audience, four raised their hands in opposition to the plan described by Pedersen. Everyone else raised their hands in favor.

That's not representative sample, but a margin of over 10 to 1 suggests the county commission is heading down the right track in opening our land on Lake Madison for our enjoyment.

And this could happen fast: Commissioner Pedersen made no promises, but he indicated that if this project moves forward, the county could open the access area as early as the end of this month. If they do, I'll bring my bike to the ribbon-cutting.

I am pleased to see that, even in the midst of an economic downturn, a fair number of my neighbors recognize that not everything should be for sale. Yes, we could rake in a bunch of cash from selling the poor farm and taxing another tract of McMansions. But leaving some land open for everyone, for Grandma and Grandpa to sit and fish or the kids to lie on the beach and watch the clouds, has value, too. And fifty years from now, my great-grandkids will be glad we recognized that value and saved one more sunny spot for them to enjoy.


  1. It's up to the sanitary district now. If they enforce the flush toilet regs, then the potential public access area is finished before it ever got started.

    Knowing Linda Hilde, I would say chances are low for any porta potty approval.

  2. Just a thought: whose jurisdiction takes precedence on county land: the sanitary district or the county?

    Here in the Lake Herman Sanitary District, the state owns two chunks of land—the state park and the west-side lake access area out my window. The state maintained vault toilets at the state park for years and currently maintains one at the lake access area. Our sanitary district has never made a peep.

  3. The rule says that you must use flush toilets. If the rule is enforced then the proposed lake access is done. If one exception is given, then the door is open for everyone.

  4. ...and so many Lake Madison residents are just itching to rush through that door and install porta-potties and outhouse on their $750,000 houses.

    Ever hear of a variance?

    Just curious: has there even been a big public event held at the lake where porta-potties have been brought in?


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