MAY TOWNSHIP - The May Township Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to strike the words "youth" and "camp" from the allowed uses in the township's conservancy zoning district, potentially upending a deal that would see the arrival of a Catholic youth camp serving up to 500 kids per day during peak summer periods.
The plans by the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership to place a camp in northern Washington County on land owned by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation have met strong opposition from residents and the directors of a charter school that leases a portion of the Wilder property.
"I've never seen the public more passionate or engaged," said township Supervisor John Pazlar after the meeting ended. A standing-room-only crowd of about 60 people at the May Town Hall applauded the supervisor's vote.
A moratorium on any changes to uses within conservancy districts passed last year is set to expire at the end of this month, hastening the board's moves to make changes to its comprehensive plan and zoning requirements. The May Township Planning Commission last month recommended, among other things, that the board drop the language "youth, camp" from the allowed uses in the conservancy district.
The planning commission's recommendation brought a swift response from Wilder Foundation attorney Thomas L. Bray, who wrote in a Nov. 2 letter to the township that the decision was arbitrary and capricious. The board's objections to proposed traffic levels and land use were not made on a rational basis, Bray wrote. The site hosted a Wilder youth camp for many years going back to 1958, Bray continued. The township's efforts to changeits zoning language now "may force Wilder Foundation to resort to the courts to protect its rights," Bray said.
The site still has a conditional-use permit attached to it that allows a youth camp, and township attorney Doug Snyder said it remains in place indefinitely. It's unclear if that would allow the Catholic Youth Partnership to go forward with its purchase of the Wilder land, however.
Town Board Chair John Adams said that while the conditional-use permit remains, uses allowed under the permit may not, suggesting that if the Wilder Foundation stopped holding camps there the township could argue camps were no longer allowed.
A spokesman for the Catholic Youth Partnership said after the meeting that he had no immediate comment on its next step.
In a deal made public this fall, the Wilder Foundation would sell some 600 acres in May Township to the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership, closing sometime next summer.
The land sale would require the termination of a lease held by the River Grove elementary school, which has been on the site since 2017. The K-6 school has leased several buildings that were once used by Concordia Language Villages; it has 225 students and a waiting list of 71 kids, according to Principal Drew Goodson.
The Wilder Foundation has pitched the deal as a means to ensure the property continues to provide a community service while its natural beauty and resources are preserved. The potential sale price has not been disclosed, but the undeveloped parcel includes mature forests, pristine lakes, trails and habitats teeming with wildlife. Wilder has owned the property since 1957, operating programs there until 2003.
Tim Healy, president of the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership, said Monday evening that his organization envisions a camp where kids could go on retreat, drawn away from their phones, televisions and peer influences, to find a supportive and caring message "that God loves you and has a plan for you," he said.
"The pristine nature of the land is exactly why we were drawn to it," he said. "That last thing we're going to do is destroy it."
He said he's been trying to connect with the River Grove school as well with the hopes of brokering a deal that would allow the school to stay until the end of the 2023-24 school year. "Our hope is to run a camp just like Wilder did in the 1980s," said Healy. "We're not doing anything different."
Goodson, the River Grove principal, said he doesn't think the Catholic Partnership can make a deal.
"We do not believe that based on our legal opinion that they are in a position to help us," said Goodson. "They are not the current property owner."
Goodson pointed to the school community and local residents who have opposed the camp plan, saying Wilder needs to listen. "We don't feel this camp is a proper use for the pristine nature of the Wilder forest," he said.