GOVERNMENT CENTER––Three lawyers traded caselaw, precedent and evidence in a civil case surrounding the Big Wood Lake Campground in the Burnett County Courthouse.
Big Wood Lake Camp & RV LLC is operated by Pat and Judi Kinsella. They bought 234 acres of land in Wood River and Trade Lake towards the end of 2018. They originally submitted a pair of consecutive conditional use permits (CUP) that laid out the campground first as a resort with a large expansion of RV sites and the second CUP proposed similar plan but a scaled back version.
In March that CUP was tabled by the Burnett County Land Use and Information Committee because they did not have enough time or resources to decide on the camp/resort at 22460 Assembly Drive in the town of Wood River.
The Concerned Citizens of Big Wood Lake, U.A. released a statement in August outlining their issues and concerns with the proposed campground.
“The former Bible camp had a small campground with 12 sites near the waterfront, half of which included electrical hook-ups for RVs,” the statement explained. “In addition to the 125 new proposed sites, the new owners are also seeking to double the number of sites in the historic campground, bringing the total number of RV lots to 150 or more.”
The lawsuit contends the new owners are not in compliance with county and town zoning law.
Representing Big Wood Lake Camp & RV, LLC. was Karla Vehrs and Gretchen Gurstelle. On the plaintiff side was attorney Joseph Cincotta. Judge Melissia Mogen was presiding over the court.
The courtroom had a larger audience than usual on Friday Oct. 25, and the judge reminded the room to turn off cell phones, reminded them of the no recording policy. She added she would hold someone in contempt if they were found to be recording.
The majority of the argument centered around whether the camp had been not operating for 12 months.
Gurstelle and Vehrs argued that the camp had not been out of operation as a camp for more than 12 months. Gurstelle laid out three reasons they believe the original CUP, which was approved in 2013, still applies.
The first was the footprint of the camp has stayed the same and the property owners have not changed the current camp besides updated structures. The second was the intention of the owners has not changed and third was that operations at the camp have continued.
Gurstelle said there is no documentation of campers attending any program at the camp since 2017, however, she added they did not let their camp license go longer than 12 months without being updated.
“The original conditional use permit, then, still applies,” Gurstelle explained.
The Wood Lake Camp & RV attorneys also gave history of the camp dating back 80 years when it was owned by Converge Great Lakes. Then about 15 years ago Wood Lake Bible Camp became it’s own entity.
At this point it was noted by the defense that Converge Great Lakes may once again take up programming operations at the camp in the future, but the Kinsella’s would still be in charge financially. The Kinsella’s apparently put enough capital funds into the camp for renovations and would hand programming operations back over to Converge Great Lakes.
Cincotta argued the Kinsella’s have always intended on having the camp designed for short-term rentals for adults.
The defense argued that is not the case and they always intended on keeping the camp as a youth camp.
The attorneys for Wood Lake Camp & RV submitted an affidavit and other materials a week before the motion on October 18. Cincotta gave a critique that material should not be submitted that soon before the hearing.
Judge Mogen said Cincotta was not submitting a critique of the last-minute filings being submitted, but instead said it was a complaint and she agreed with that complaint.
“This is a complex case involving multiple ordinances… It is not to be done willy nilly,” Mogen said.
Mogen said she would not be issuing any ruling in court on Friday. She continued to explain there is a lot of material in the case, both defense lawyers had binders full of documents, exhibits and notes on the case, and she would need to review all of it. This included late filings and cases with precedence in the case including Lessard V. Burnett County Board of Adjustment.
The oral ruling for Dec. 6 at 9 a.m. in the Burnett County Courthouse.