SIREN, WIS. – The snow lies deep on the lakes and woods of Burnett County, but the temperature is rising as residents and developers fight over an explosion of campgrounds in northwest Wisconsin.
Long a favorite vacation spot of Twin Cities residents, the county has become a focal point in a push by developers to build large campgrounds that critics say will bring throngs of vacationers and damage the natural resources that are the area's main attraction.
Developers say they're being painted as villains by well-off cabin owners who are engaging in class warfare and preventing others from enjoying the lakes and woods.
In recent months, Burnett County officials have approved several applications for new or expanded campgrounds, while denying several others. The process has been so contentious, with long public meetings and hours of testimony, that the county is seeking to impose a moratorium on new campgrounds while it clarifies some of its laws and policies on the topic.
"Campgrounds are the hot button right now," said Craig Conroy, a member of the county Board of Supervisors and vice chairman of the county land-use committee that approves campground permits. "This kind of exploded on us.
"A lot more people are recreating and living here now, thanks to the pandemic," he said. "There has been a sudden surge in interest, and people seeking to expand campgrounds is part of that."
The campground boom is an unexpected byproduct of a legislative fight over mining sand for petroleum fracking. Over the past decade, as sand mining increased in western Wisconsin, local governments began passing restrictions on mining activities.
In 2017, the state Legislature passed a law called Act 67, which limited the ability of local governments to restrict land use. Now, critics say, developers are taking advantage by pushing ever-larger campgrounds on localities that may not be able to stop them.
Burnett County has more than 500 lakes, but most of them are small. Some of the proposed campgrounds would add 100 or more campsites on lakes half the size of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. With multiple people using each campsite, "it's inappropriate high density," said Joy Dressel, a local cabin owner who's fought against new campgrounds.
She's particularly worried about the potential for pollution from campground wastewater, pointing out that a developer could put 100 campsites on land that under zoning laws could hold only four or five cabins.
"It's like a little city. And you're going to do it without a proper sewer system?" she said. "You're going to do a [septic] drainfield with 700 to 800 people?"
Not your grandpa's camping
For many, the word "campground" brings to mind an image of a tent with a ring of rocks for a campfire.
In reality, Burnett County campgrounds are much more permanent than that. Although tent sites do exist, when people here talk about campgrounds, they're talking about what amounts to a trailer park.
"None of us are against camping," Dressel said. "But these are not campsites."
As long as a trailer is less than 400 square feet, it's classified as a recreational vehicle rather than a mobile home, and is treated more leniently by the zoning code. Many existing trailers are large "fifth-wheel" units that can be towed by a pickup.
But in recent years, manufacturers have created something called a "park model." While adhering to the 400-square-foot limit, it's a mini-mobile home, often two stories tall, looking much like the "tiny homes" that have been the subject of popular TV shows.
Park models can cost close to $100,000 and are usually installed by a dealer using specialized equipment. In addition to the trailer, campsites are allowed to have a 144-square-foot deck and a 100-square-foot storage building.
"If you toured the so-called 'campgrounds' in this county, you'd see a lot of what look like manufactured homes — and they look pretty permanent," said Steve Pearson, another campground opponent who's lived in the county year-round for more than 40 years. "We're not talking about where you pitch a tent and have a campfire."
Campers typically lease their site for a year, paying $2,500 to $3,000 for an annual contract. Many renew their leases year after year and never move their trailers from the campground property.
Twenty years ago, Pearson said, there were four or five large campgrounds in the county. Now, according to testimony at a recent land-use hearing, there are 26 campgrounds with about 1,800 campsites. That's a 60% increase in campsites in the past five years, with more proposed sites in the pipeline.
Taxes are another concern of local property owners. Campground residents don't pay property taxes, yet they use county facilities and services, Pearson said.
Anti-campground sentiment is so strong among some cabin owners that a group of residents in the Gull Lake and Minerva Lake areas recently banded together and paid $1.5 million to buy back land from a developer who had bought a long-established resort and planned to turn it into a campground with more than 100 campsites.
It's not just cabin owners who oppose campground expansion. Even some campground residents are against it.
"People moved here to get away from the city, and now it's coming up here," said Andrew Ruberto, also known as the "Crappie Master." Ruberto lives in St. Paul but comes up to his trailer at the Devil's Lake Resort campground most weekends to fish.
"A lot of people have had these spots forever — they're passed through the family," he added.
Mary Muller lives year-round in her trailer at the Oak Ridge Campground on Webb Lake.
"It's cheap livin' and I love it up here," said the retired postal worker, originally from St. Paul. "I like to look at the woods."
It's peaceful in the winter, but Muller said it's a different scene in the summer, when the weekend crowds show up.
"There's enough traffic already," she said. "People come up here and get [drunk] and stupid."
'Almost like class warfare'
The best-known campground developer is Steve Austin, a former Twin Cities resident who moved to Burnett County about 15 years ago. Although there are other developers active in the county, Austin has led the pack and drawn most of the flak from opponents. It's Austin who was paid $1.5 million to not develop a property he bought, the former Houman's Resort on Gull Lake.
"He has put the fear of God in everybody," Dressel said.
As a member of the county's Board of Supervisors and chairman of the Webb Lake Township board, Austin wields political power along with his economic clout. He owns three campgrounds with about 350 campsites, as well as a mobile home park, and has deals in the works for several more large campgrounds.
Austin said he's unfairly painted as a bad guy when he's really giving more people an opportunity to enjoy the natural resources of the region.
"Years ago you had all these small mom-and-pop resorts," Austin said. "And they went away because they sold out to all these people who built big houses. So this is a way that people again can connect with nature and the lakes in a more affordable way."
Opposition to campgrounds, he said, "is almost like class warfare: I got mine, you get yours. Well, you can't find a cabin to buy anymore — it's impossible. It's the people's lake, it's the state's lake.
"Our campgrounds are communities. We have retired cops, retired firefighters, retired professionals. They live here in the summer and go to Arizona for the winter."
His campgrounds are subject to regular state inspections, he said.
"We are inspected every year by the state of Wisconsin. We have to have [septic] systems designed by a state-licensed engineer before we can even put them in the ground.
"There are a lot of Airbnbs and VRBOs [vacation rental by owner] now," he added. "And they are completely unregulated. They're not paying taxes."
Issues of pollution and water quality aren't solely the concern of cabin owners, Austin said.
"I want the damn lake to be clean. The campers want that, too — that's what they're coming here for," he said. "They're just not doing it in a $900,000 lake mansion.
"I think everybody has the right to use what's here: the water, the forest, the trails. Otherwise, it's private."
For now, county officials are hoping to step back and let things cool down while they come to grips with what's still a pretty new situation.
"I don't think anybody would say we are anti-campground," said Conroy, the county supervisor. "But we are trying to make the process understandable for everybody."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402