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Another chance to make camp

Although Goodhue County Board recognized that Hidden Valley Campground violated its conditional-use permit, commissioners voted Tuesday to table a resolution to revoke it and close the 50-year-old Welch business.

Campground owner Cory Axelson has until a May 20 board meeting to bring to the county a plan addressing alleged violations and a failure to obtain state health and septic system licenses.

“I think the board here, a majority of them are looking for you to keep operating,” Commissioner Jim Bryant told Axelson before forwarding a motion to table the decision. “But the onus is on you, not us.”

Bryant’s motion passed 4-1, with Board Chair Ron Allen the only dissenting vote.

“Cory, you’re a lucky man, because if I wasn’t the chair I’d make the motion to close you down,” Allen said.

The decision came after a lengthy testimony from Land-use Management Department staff detailing a list of five alleged permit violations dating back as far as 2006, including unauthorized expansion and relocation, exceeding a 200-campsite limit and operating without a license from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Commissioners voted to accept the presented evidence and find that Hidden Valley Campground violated all five conditions. Three of the resolutions passed unanimously, but Commissioner Ted Seifert voted against the findings that campsites and roads were relocated and that the campground exceeded 200 sites.

Land-use Management contends that maps and inspection reports show Axelson moved roads and infrastructure on the campground’s east end to replace 13 campsites lost to flooding and riverbank erosion over the past decade.

The county further presented Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office dashboard camera footage from 2010 that purportedly shows 288 campground “units” consisting of camper trailers, RVs, tents and empty sites.

But Axelson’s testimony disputed much of the county’s evidence, which he said either was analyzed incorrectly or documented things outside of the tax parcel covered by the conditional-use permit.

“There is no way I could have 240 campers and 40 sites empty,” Axelson told commissioners. “I wouldn’t have that many empty sites if I had that many campers there. It’s impossible.”

Axelson also discredited the overlay map used by the county to show the alleged campsite expansion. He said the map was drawn by hand in 1975 and is not to scale.

A group of five longtime campers added to Axelson’s defense during a public hearing portion, praising Hidden Valley Campground as a family destination and important part of the local economy.

Wild, Scenic Rivers Act

Revoking the permit would likely close the campground for good, as its proximity to the Cannon River would prevent the county from issuing a new permit due to the Minnesota Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The campground was grandfathered in before the state enacted a 150-foot restriction from the river’s ordinary high-water mark.

The campground holds a conditional-use permit filed in 1981 by Axelson’s late father, Gilbert Axelson, that was approved in January 1982. It allows for 20 mobile home sites and 200 campsites, with a stipulation that it “does not encompass any further area.”

Goodhue County already revoked the campground’s CUP in 2011 over many of the same concerns, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the decision because the county did not sufficiently prove a condition of the CUP was violated.

The campground has since faced an ongoing regulatory battle with the state, including a permit for an unfinished wastewater disposal system that was revoked by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in February.

The business also has not had a health department license since the end of 2011, prompting a district court judge to order a permanent injunction in February barring the campground from opening until it does.

Should the county decide not to revoke the CUP next month, it is unclear if the campground could continue in its current state or if it would need to be reorganized.

“This is another hurdle that I had to meet today,” Axelson said after leaving the meeting Tuesday. “I’ve got a plan set up, and we’re going to move forward, fill out all of the proper paperwork and show (the County Board) that I’m serious.”

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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