DULUTH — Christine Wyrobek purchased about 45 acres of undeveloped residential land at the mouth of Black Bay on Lake Vermilion with the intent of developing rustic campsites for veterans — a plan that St. Louis County officials have nixed and that her neighbors are fighting.
That hasn't stopped her.
Wyrobek has forged ahead with, for now, a different plan — one that she believes falls within the ordinance dictating what she is permitted to do with her land. In the meantime, she and Lance and Kari Kuhn, a couple that owns one of the parcels of land in question, filed a complaint against St. Louis County appealing its decision on rezoning.
In May, the St. Louis County Planning Commission voted 7-1 against Wyrobek's request to rezone her new residential property on the popular fishing lake — an area that has long sat quiet. Despite the ruling, in August she went live with images of her new campsites, opportunities to win a free stay, and the first public review of the experience: tricky to get to, the reviewer said, but they planned to return.
Wyrobek said her primitive campsites fall securely within the county ordinance allowing short-term rentals for fewer than 180 days on residential property — which also allows for VRBO and Airbnb rentals. She's only operating the number of campsites she believes she can have on her land, according to her read of the county ordinances: just four sites per land parcel.
"Our view of the law is that it's allowed here," Wyrobek said, adding that the county's land development plan cites a shortage of campgrounds in the area.
So far, Wyrobek has 13 campsites on her land in the Superior National Forest, some that include amenities for glamping: canvas tents on raised wooden platforms with bedding, vintage furniture, French press coffee pots and a view of Lake Vermilion. The sites, at "the doorstep of the Boundary Waters," are listed for about $100 per night, but just $10 for U.S. veterans. Proceeds go to help veterans.
"Veterans are one of the very few groups that make the choice to go out and put themselves at risk for us," Wyrobek said. "We wanted to develop something that could live past us and showed our gratitude and try to help."
She is operating the site under the nonprofit Rough-N-It Inc., which was formed in late 2022.
Bob Ahlberg, a city planner from the Chicago area who has decades of experience in zoning — and a summer place near Wyrobek's property — described the continued hosting of campers, despite the ruling from the planning commission, as "astounding."
"In 45 years, I've never seen someone so bold as to take a 'no' and do it anyway," he said.
The county cannot comment on property disputes because of the complaint, according to St. Louis County communications manager Dana Kazel. Wyrobek said she was told three weeks ago that the county is investigating what she has done so far, but that she hasn't heard any follow-up.
There is a hearing set for Oct. 13 at the St. Louis County Courthouse.
County and neighbors object
Wyrobek's land is described by county officials as having a topography that includes bluffs and steep slopes. Most spots are accessible only by boat.
There are five parcels of residential land that she wants rezoned to shoreline multiple use — which would allow for a tent-only campground and education center. In denying her request during a May meeting, county officials said they did not want to set a precedent with this property and that they didn't see the campground project as benefitting anyone beyond Wyrobek.
There isn't a public need, officials said, according to meeting minutes, and there is other property in this area that is zoned for this sort of development.
County officials described her request as spot zoning — in which a piece of land is zoned differently than the land surrounding it, a practice that is illegal in Minnesota.
The ruling favored the more than 40 neighbors who turned out to voice opposition — some of whom have had property on Lake Vermilion for generations. They described it as a poorly planned idea that the land can't support. Some wondered what would happen in the future if the property was rezoned and sold — could a hotel be built there? Beatty Township officials noted that there would be increased traffic on the scenic but dangerous Raps Road.
"People have paid taxes to the county and the state so they can have the peace and quiet and serenity that would continue on for their lifetime," said neighbor Philip Simensen. "I could put up a salvage center. How would people like that?"
Ahlberg sent the county a several-page objection to Wyrobek's rezoning request, based on his years in the business. Among his concerns: the impact on neighbors, whether the land can support commercial use, traffic on rural roads and on the water, and how supplies and garbage will be transported from the sites.
"It's a project that shouldn't have ever been proposed," he said. "No one is trying to disparage or not support veterans. Everyone has uniformly said this is a great thing. There are better locations. This is the wrong location."
Wyrobek, who is a resident of Texas but was born, grew up in and still has ties to Cook, Minn., filed a complaint against St. Louis County in early September, in part because she said the county did not have a factual and reasonable reason for denying her request.
Her original plan was to build 47 campsites on her property — which could take up to a decade. She also envisions disc golf, picnic areas, public trails, an education center and more.
"If we don't get further permitting, we'll be at capacity by next year," she said.
Wyrobek said she has been surprised by the response from her neighbors. She said she believes they are resistant to change.
"It's private land," she said. "It belongs to someone else now. Camping is such a minimal impact use for the land compared to big houses — to what else we could put on the land," she said. "There's almost a mob mentality that people just don't want change. And change happens every day."
She said some neighbors have yelled at her and her son for cleaning up the land; some have hidden in the woods and taken photographs of them. Meanwhile, the neighbors say Wyrobek has removed stakes in the ground that indicate divisions in property and that she is encroaching on neighbors' property.
"I hope whatever happens, we can put it behind us soon so we can all be good neighbors," she said.