State lawmaker in dispute over up north lakefront property

By: - November 17, 2021 6:00 am

State Rep. Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee, and his wife, Kari, are asking for a variance in Cook County to build a boat storage shed near the shoreline of Poplar Lake. The request for a variance from the Mortensens included a photo of the work after a cease-and-desist order was issued halting construction. Photo courtesy of Cook County.

State Rep. Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee, and his wife, Kari Mortensen, violated a cease-and-desist order to halt construction on a boat storage shed because it was too close to the shoreline of property they own on Poplar Lake in northern Minnesota. 

Mortensen, the Republican lawmaker who has courted controversy since he was first elected to the statehouse a year ago, purchased the 2-acre property in Cook County last year. It has about 270 feet of shoreline and a cabin as well as two small, existing structures.

Earlier this year, the Mortensens began to build a new boat shed and an attached deck 60 feet from the water, but the shed is located within the 100-foot setback distance for structures, a rule intended to protect the water quality of the lake from runoff. 

“The property owners were provided with a cease and desist order for that construction and (asked) to apply for after-the-fact variance relief in order to retain the structure,” according to documents from the Cook County Board of Adjustment. “Since the time of the cease and desist, the property owners have proceeded to place roofing on the structure and install windows.”

The land-use dispute came before the Board of Adjustment on Oct. 20, after the Mortensens requested a variance. One board member moved to deny the variance request, but the board ultimately voted instead to table the application until December and instructed the Mortensens to provide more information showing the board it would be impossible to build the shed anywhere else on the property that would follow land-use rules.

Kari Mortensen called in to the meeting, saying she and her husband were unable to attend in person. She said she was helping her husband recover from hip surgery. 

Calls, texts and emails seeking comment from Kari and Erik Mortensen were not returned. 

Mortensen, who represents Shakopee and Jackson and Louisville townships, was expelled earlier this year from the New House Republican Caucus. 

He has attracted attention for a number of political stunts, including inviting Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison to his home for a Thanksgiving weekend party last year during the pandemic, in defiance of public health orders at the time that discouraged multiple households from gathering to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

Kari Mortensen last month bristled at questioning from members of the Board of Adjustment, including chair Jerry Hiniker, according to an audio recording of the meeting.

“I’m trying to understand how somebody, especially somebody connected with lawmaking in the state, could take a project and say, ‘Well, I don’t need a permit for it,’ and then draw it out to the point that ‘I don’t have to follow any of the other rules with it,’” Hiniker said as Mortensen tried to cut in. 

She pushed back, saying: “I am not in any field that makes laws, so sorry if you were misinformed there, but I am the one who filled out all of the applications and did the research for it.”

As for the cease-and-desist order, she conceded they did the finishing work but blamed the county for being slow to act. “We stopped for three months, but we tried and tried to get into your schedule and were unable to, so rather than to let it sit and rot, we put the roof on it, mhmm, we did do that,” she said. 

I don’t feel like it was anything from our side that was amiss,” she said when Judy Motschenbacher, another board member, also asked why they violated the order.

Tim Nelson, Cook County Land Services director, told the Board of Adjustment that the county attorney chose not to enforce the cease-and-desist order because the variance request was pending. A violation of such an order could result in a misdemeanor charge.

Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken did not respond to a phone message or email seeking comment. 

Dan Schutte, who owns a cabin two doors down from the Mortensen property, submitted a lengthy commentary opposing the granting of the variance. The county sent 37 letters to neighbors notifying them the variance request was coming before the Board of Adjustment.

Schutte, a former district manager for the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation Board, argued that granting the variance would slowly degrade the water quality and set precedent that other property owners can build and seek approval after the fact.  

“It flies in the face of everything that Cook County stands for — a big-city guy coming up and putting up an illegal building,” Schutte said in an interview. 

It’s unclear how the board might vote next month, but Motschenbacher last month indicated she would vote to deny the new structure if it falls within the 100-foot setback. 

Schutte, whose family has owned the cabin on Poplar Lake since 1985, said his wife worried that his involvement in the Mortensen variance request might spark a feud between neighbors that could stretch years. 

“You might be setting yourself up for a generational dispute in pursuing this with a guy like that,” Schutte recalls his wife telling him. 

But to him, the water quality is important: “It is unlikely there will ever be a human-caused major event in Cook County… no Exxon Valdez oil spill,” he wrote to the Board of Adjustment. “It is the aggregate effects of ‘death by a million paper cuts’ of many isolated, seemingly inconsequential developments being allowed to happen on the landscape.”

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.

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