PRINCETON, MINN. – Sherburne County residents soon could be required to move excess boats, ATVs and junk cars out of their yards as the county considers cracking down on outdoor storage of vehicles.
As city living encroaches on the wide open spaces of this exurban Twin Cities county, its commissioners are set to adopt a zoning ordinance that would prohibit parking more than two vehicles in a yard.
What's more, the vehicles must be licensed and operable with fully inflated tires and functioning headlights, taillights and turn signals. Operable vehicles parked in driveways aren't included in the measure, but vehicles in the yard must be on an "improved surface" such as concrete, crushed gravel or other durable material. The ordinance also would apply to boats, ATVs, snowmobiles and other motorized vehicles.
"It's been a longtime problem," Nancy Riddle, the county's planning and zoning administrator, told commissioners at a board meeting last month. "I don't know if it's an issue of hoarding, car sales or people just like to collect cars and vehicles."
The county has received roughly 200 complaints about junk vehicles in the past three years, she said, with some properties having 30 or more vehicles on a lot. As the county has become more populated "people definitely have the expectation that they're not going to have to live by a junkyard or a car lot," Riddle said.
The restrictions would apply only in platted subdivisions, which are mainly found in the eastern part of the county. Most homes in the subdivisions are on 5-acre or 2 ½-acre lots.
But more and more of the countryside is being covered with housing, said Chelsea Brennan, who's lived on a 2 ½-acre lot outside Princeton since 2009.
"There are way more houses now, way more," said Brennan, who lives with her husband, Matt, five children, two grandparents and an adult nephew. "Farmers are selling their land and these subdivisions are popping up everywhere."
Brennan grew up in the Twin Cities, then moved to the country. "I just loved it," she said. "Living here — it's freedom."
Target of complaints
The Brennans have quite a fleet. On a recent visit, there were five operable cars, vans and SUVs in the driveway. A boat, several ATVs and dirt bikes, and a couple of trucks and race cars were scattered elsewhere on the property.
Matt Brennan runs a concession business, selling cotton candy, mini-donuts and corn dogs at fairs and festivals throughout the region. Five vehicles are used in his business. There's also a treasured Mercedes, which isn't running, that belonged to Chelsea Brennan's dad and once was owned by the singer Tom Jones. They're in the process of restoring it, and a parts car that is used in the restoration also is stored outside.
The Brennans have been the target of several complaints in recent years. In fact, when county officials have made presentations on the proposed ordinance, the Brennan property is one they've featured as a problem. That hurts, Matt Brennan said.
"I'm not gonna lie — it was a little bit insulting when they showed a picture of my house and said, 'They might be hoarders,' " he said.
Aerial photos give a deceptive view of what's visible on the property, Chelsea Brennan said, adding that the couple built a tall privacy fence last year that screens much of their land from the road.
"It's really unfortunate if you look at the photos they used," she said. "They sent a drone over people's houses. We're not the Jetsons."
The couple tries hard to be good neighbors, Chelsea Brennan said, and none of their neighbors has ever mentioned their vehicles as an issue.
"What's next? My tree's not trimmed right?" she said. "I just want to be a good neighbor. I wish people would come and talk to me if they have a problem."
County commissioners sent the proposed zoning ordinance back to the Planning Advisory Commission with instructions to hold one last public hearing, which will be scheduled for sometime later in August.
But at the July meeting, it was clear which way board members were leaning.
"This body is supporting this ordinance," said Raeanne Danielowski, the board chair.
"We all believe in property owners' rights," she added, but "you have to kind of assure that there's going to be some reasonable expectation of what's in your neighborhood."
Ready to comply
If the ordinance passes, the Brennans will have to figure out what to do with their many vehicles.
They were planning to build a pole barn last year but put it off when the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the concession business and fairs and festivals were canceled.
"If it passes, we'll comply, and I'll know we did everything to get the community's voice involved," Matt Brennan said.
Chelsea Brennan, meanwhile, lamented the changes that have brought urban sprawl to her rural community.
"It's lost that little-town feeling," she said.
John Reinan • 612-673-7402