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State looks to shutter Hidden Valley Campground

The Minnesota commissioner of health is seeking a temporary injunction to shut down Hidden Valley Campground in Welch, alleging owner Cory Axelson has been running it without a license for two years.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Beecher presented the state's case Monday at a hearing in Goodhue County District Court.

The lawsuit alleges Axelson opened Hidden Valley Campground to more than four tents or recreational vehicles — the state's requirement to be considered a recreational camping area — in September 2012 as well as three times this summer without a license from the Minnesota Department of Health.

The campground lost its license at the end of 2011, and Axelson did not submit an application for renewal in either 2012 or 2013, according to the civil complaint.

"There's no question the defendant was running a campground," Beecher said, adding photographs and affidavits show there were more than five tents and RVs at Hidden Valley Campground multiple times between May and July.

Goodhue County Sheriff's Office responded to a loud music complaint at the campground May 24. Deputies "observed more than 20 tents, 20 hard-sided campers with people in them and many more people hanging around at the campsites," according to the complaint.

Goodhue County Sheriff's Department later executed a search warrant of the campground and Axelson's home July 27. MDH Enforcement Coordinator Mark Peloquin reported observing "more than 100 occupied campsites."

Axelson declined to comment on the state's allegations for this year, but said fewer than five campsites were kept open in 2012 in order to maintain the campground's conditional-use permit in Goodhue County.

The CUP would be lost automatically if Hidden Valley Campground shuts down for more than 90 days, said Julie Nagorski, Axelson's attorney.

Keeping the CUP is "vitally important" because Axelson would not be able to reapply for a permit due to setbacks from the adjacent Cannon River outlined in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, she added.

The campground has operated under a conditional-use permit from the early 1980s, and was grandfathered in before river regulations were in place.

The commissioner of health is looking to "shut the campground down entirely," while ignoring the exemption for four or fewer campsites, Nagorski said.

At the center of the case is the campground's sewage disposal system, which does not meet Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wastewater permitting requirements.

The sewage system was one of nine health violations recorded at the campground in 2011, according to court documents.

Axelson responded to the violations, but his corrective plan was ultimately rejected by the MDH in part because he did not submit a timeline for completing the sewage system.

Around that time, Goodhue County Board voted to revoke Hidden Valley Campground's CUP, citing a lack of compliance with the county zoning ordinance and safety concerns.

Without the permit from the county, the MDH informed Axelson in a letter dated Dec. 22, 2011, that it would not renew his health license for 2012.

That following August, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the county's decision, finding that Axelson did not violate a condition of his permit, which only limits the size of the campground to 20 mobile home sites and 200 campsites.

MDH staff returned to the campsite later that month to review progress on the previously documented health violations. Although Axelson corrected a number of issues, he was told the MPCA would have to approve the campground's plan for a sewage system before a license would be considered.

A few weeks later, MDH was informed that the campground was being operated without a license and sent staff to inspect it. The department assessed a $10,000 fine to Axelson for operating the campground without a license, according to the complaint.

Axelson contested the penalty on the grounds he allowed fewer than five tents or RVs to be used.

Although there were more than four RVs hooked up to sewage and power lines, they were not being occupied, and in place only to show that the campground was not shut down, Axelson said.

The issue was forwarded to the Office of Administrative Hearings and is ongoing.

Nagorski said Axelson intends to complete the sewage disposal system, but recent flooding on the Cannon River, the county's attempt to revoke the CUP and problems with contractors have caused delays.

"He is committed to completing it," she said, adding Axelson already has spent $400,000 on the project.

An engineer is revising plans to bring the disposal system into compliance with state requirements, and is expected to be ready for MPCA review in a couple weeks, Nagorski said.

Once the plan is approved, Axelson hopes to reopen the campground while pumping sewage and hauling it away during construction, she added.

Nagorski said Axelson is being singled out by state agencies and Goodhue County commissioners, who have used "heavy handed tactics" to shut the campground down.

Axelson described the campaign against him as a "personal vendetta" by neighbors and county officials.

"It's an issue of safety," said Terry Fruth, one of the most vocal neighbors pushing for greater oversight.

He said the campground has grown "rowdy and noisier" since the early 1990s, pointing to dozens of calls to Goodhue County Sheriff's Office over the past several years.

Friends of the Lower Cannon River, Cannon River Watershed Partnership, Izaak Walton League and Mothers Against Drunk Driving also have spoken out against conditions at Hidden Valley Campground, Fruth said.

Axelson and his supporters say the image of Hidden Valley Campground is being distorted by opponents, and that it is an important tourism and job promoter in the county.

"I just want the truth to come out," said Eddie Miller of Red Wing, who has camped at Hidden Valley Campground for 25 years. "That's all I want."

"If it was so horrible, people wouldn't be staying here," Axelson said.

First District Court Judge Lawrence Clark has taken the case under advisement. He has until Dec. 8 to announce his decision.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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