Converting privately-owned summer cottages into revenue-generating businesses (or “tourist rooming houses”) has been permissible by Barron County ordinance for more than 15 years, but now is the subject of a civil suit filed against the Barron County Board of Adjustment.

A married couple from St. Louis Park, Minn., filed the action late last month, after the Board of Adjustment declined their request to use their newly-purchased cabin on Bass Lake (near Chetek) as rental property.

A formal response from the county will be filed after the plaintiffs submit further documentation to the court.

According to the suit, plaintiffs Mark A. and Leanne J. Funke bought a home and just over five acres of property at 2723 6-5/8 Ave., Chetek, on Bass Lake, in June 2021.

At the time of the purchase, the property was used as a seasonal residence, but the new owners hoped to use it as a short-term rental to generate additional income, when they weren’t staying there themselves.

On July 13, the couple asked the Chetek Town Board for a variance and special exception to use their property for rental. The town board approved.

On July 28, the owners filed an application with the County Zoning Office for a special exception to use the property as a “tourist rooming house” under existing county ordinance.

In the application, they promised not to use motorized boats or to allow parking on the street, observe occupancy limits, avoid shooting fireworks, observe quiet hours to respect neighbors, and not to allow RV parking. They paid a $500 application fee for the permit.

On Aug. 17, after an inspection of the premises, the county Department of Health and Human Services issued a license to the Funkes to use the property as a tourist rooming house.

The final step in the process was an Aug. 23, 2021, hearing before the Barron County Board of Adjustment.

“During the meeting, many neighbors expressed concerns about the potential impacts to the health and safety of Bass Lake and its current residents, as well as concerns about property values,” the complaint said.

The Board of Adjustment declined the application by a three to two vote.

The plaintiffs argue that the vote was “politically motivated, arbitrary, oppressive, unreasonable and unsupported by the evidence (as well as) inconsistent with previous determinations by the Board of Adjustment.”

It’s too early in the process for the county to provide a formal response to the suit, according to John Muench, the county’s corporation counsel.

The legal process “requires the Board of Adjustment to file (its) decision, record and transcript from the hearing that is being appealed with the Circuit Court,” he said. “While we received a copy of the court papers, the parties have not yet served the county, so the response period has not yet commenced.”

Past history

The September civil suit isn’t the first time that the tourist rooming house ordinance has been the subject of debate.

In April 2019, the Barron County Board of Health and Human Services Committee listened to concerns from permanent lake residents who were unhappy about issues such as excessive noise, drinking, the use of trailers and recreational vehicles on the properties, enforcement (or lack of same) and whether property owners follow the rules regarding sales taxes.

In terms of enforcement, permanent residents can get relief if they can document at least two violations within one calendar year, the committee was told. In addition, town boards can appoint constables to enforce the ordinance in unincorporated areas where violations take place, the committee learned.

Passed in April 2006, the amendment to the Barron County Land Use Ordinance defines a “Tourist Rooming House” as “the use of a single- or two-family dwelling for the purpose of providing or furnishing overnight lodging accommodations to the public, for a period of less than one month, to any person(s) who occupies the property on a rental basis.”

Property owners must get permission from the Barron County Board of Adjustment before they can rent to visitors. Permission must be renewed annually. Owners also have to get permission from the Barron County Department of Health and Human Services, permission from a “Sanitarian,” and a State Lodging License.

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