Lutsen Resort expansion plans put on hold as county officials wait for environmental review
Joe Friedrichs

Lutsen Resort expansion plans put on hold as county officials wait for environmental review

A number of Cook County property owners said they are concerned about a proposal from Lutsen Resort and its desire to expand on the North Shore of Lake Superior and along the Poplar River.

The concerns were expressed during a meeting of the Cook County Planning Commission Wednesday, Aug. 9.

“We are greatly concerned about the serious impact the major excavation, blasting, and lowering of the surface grade for this development will have on the area immediately next to the Poplar River and our river and lake property immediately across the river,” states a written comment submitted to the planning commission from Cook County property owners David and Julaine Heit.

Officials from Lutsen Resort are proposing to build a ‘nordic spa’ near the current main lodge on the west end of Cook County. The addition would include numerous outdoor hot and cool pools, saunas, steam rooms, and additional rooms for massage therapy.

This specific proposal includes three to five outside pools with four new structures added to the property, according to county officials. The spa will involve significant changes to the landscape on the shoreline near Lake Superior and the Poplar River. This would involve “blasting, road and parking relocations, stormwater infrastructure, and revegetation,” according to the Cook County Land Services Department.

Officials from Lutsen Resort appeared before the Cook County Planning Commission August 9 to request a conditional use permit for the proposed expansion. After hearing details on the proposal from both the land services department and officials at Lutsen Resort, the planning commission voted to table the issue. Members of the planning commission agreed they needed more information, including the results of a forthcoming environmental assessment worksheet that would be completed by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board before making a decision on the proposed expansion of Lutsen Resort.

Lutsen Resort is nestled at the mouth of the Poplar River and Lake Superior. Approximately 14 acres of the nearly 42-acre parcel is located on the north side of Highway 61. Lutsen Resort hosts lodging, a restaurant, events, pool and massage services and has on site housing for staff, according to its application for the permit.

Its eastern property boundary is the Poplar River, which hosts the Poplar River Condo Association on the opposite shoreline. To the west is the Lutsen Resort Townhome Association, which shares utilities with Lutsen Resort. The golf course is located across Highway 61 and Lutsen Mountain further uphill. This project is one part of a larger comprehensive plan for expansion of Lutsen Resort.

The location for the spa is approximately one acre which currently consists of paved parking area, accessory buildings, and steep vegetated slopes, according to the permit application.

A number of written comments came in regarding the proposed expansion. Most of the concerns were from people who own property in the nearby Poplar River condominiums. Their concerns ranged from how the expansion could negatively impact the Poplar River to increased traffic in the area.

A submitted comment in support of the project from a Lutsen property owner encouraged the development, citing benefits to bringing more people to Cook County.

During the public comment period of the planning commission meeting, Margaret Watkins, the water quality specialist for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, questioned how some of the salt spas could negatively impact the health of the Poplar River, particularly in terms of the river’s trout population.

Watkins said she was concerned that there was a lack of communication about the proposed project, though she did call it a “creative idea” for Lutsen Resort to expand in the way it is proposing.

However, any development needs to support the trout population in the Poplar, she said.

Also speaking during the public comment period was Cook County Commissioner Ann Sullivan, who said she was speaking as a private citizen during the planning commission meeting. When addressing the planning commission Aug. 9, Sullivan referenced unpermitted work that the resort did in 2022 in the Poplar River.

There is no specific timeline for the EAW from the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board.  The next meeting for the Cook County Planning Commission is Sept. 13