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DULUTH — A Black-owned North Shore wellness sanctuary that aims to offer respite and healing for people of color faces pushback from neighbors worried about traffic, trespassing and noise disrupting their "way of life."

More than 30 neighbors of the rural Silver Creek Township property 35 miles northeast of Duluth filed an appeal in district court recently against a Lake County planning commission's decision to grant a permit to the nonprofit. Signs with crudely drawn black stick figures that some liken to a hangman and saying "No Clark Road resort" have popped up, inaccurately saying it wouldn't pay taxes.

To Rebeka Ndosi, the signs represent coded racism. Ndosi is the Black wellness practitioner behind the Maji ya Chai Land Sanctuary.

"The only way we can read it is intimidation," she said.

Rebeka Ndosi
Rebeka Ndosi

Maji ya Chai Land Sanctuary

Lake County approved a conditional use permit for the 40-acre former farmland where Ndosi, a Tanzanian American, and her husband will live and operate their retreat. It sits along the Encampment River and has an open field where they expect to build a wellness center and rustic lodging for the 24 overnight guests their permit allows. It also caps the number of people who can be on the property at 45 for the 12 special events it's permitted to hold annually.

Sandy Oven lives on the same road as the retreat, a few miles away. She said the project will bring too much traffic to the rural setting.

"We don't need people running up and down the roads out there," she said. "And you can say as much as you want they'll be supervised, [but] people are people and they are going to do what they want."

Neighbor Ed Bjork has a sign in his yard that someone gave him, and said he didn't view it as racist. His opposition has nothing to do with the race-focused nature of the sanctuary, he said, but the "commercialization" of an area devoted mostly to homes.

Dave Henjum said at an April planning commission meeting that the retreat would impact "my way of life."

"It's zoned rural residential, and that's why I live there," he said.

All three are part of the appeal, which claims that the county's decision to grant the permit is unreasonable and based on erroneous and insubstantial evidence. However, commission members said at the April meeting that Ndosi's application was one of the most thorough they'd seen.

An attorney for the group that filed the appeal didn't return a message.

Despite "forceful" opposition from some, other neighbors and county residents have reached out in support, Ndosi said, many sending letters to the county.

Neighbor Sara Preston said the pushback gives the impression that the township of 1,200 and greater Lake County aren't welcoming, but, in fact, many are now gathering signatures in support of the project.

"Unfortunately, many people who live up here are lifelong residents and have little to no experience with people of color," Preston said. "It's a lack of information, understanding and knowledge that leads to this fear that really looks like racism."

A wellness practitioner for two decades, Ndosi had long wanted to build a retreat along the North Shore. She and her husband put the idea in motion during the pandemic and in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.

"We had people asking, 'Do you know anybody who has a cabin?,' and then the next question is, 'Is it safe?'" she said, because a welcoming environment is critical to dealing with stress and trauma.

The retreat, she said, is about "intentional" access to the state's cherished cabin culture, especially for people of color dealing with the burdens of racism.

"It's the fulfillment of our longing to have a place that really does explicitly say, 'Come here. Rest here. We see you and you don't have to be concerned about whether we want you here,'" she said.

Yoga, meditation, bird-watching, hydrotherapy and gardening are all expected to be part of the experience, and Ndosi has worked with the developer of Bayfield's Wild Rice Retreat on her plans. Ndosi met with neighbors before applying for her permit and modified plans to appease some of their concerns, including scrapping a camping area to reduce wildfire risk.

Those who oppose the project keep moving the goal posts, said Ben Stewart, pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Two Harbors.

Some complaining about potential noise also say their own gun range activity will disrupt retreat-goers, he said.

"I've seen Rebeka and the folks of Maji ya Chai be so gracious about being good neighbors," Stewart said. "At some point you've got to wonder, is the opposition operating in bad faith or not?"