North Shore outdoors outfit fights back against neighbors trying to shut it down

About 500 kids from low- and moderate-income families visit the nonprofit camp where they can learn how to drive a dog sled. For them, the priceless education comes at no charge.

About 500 kids from low- and moderate-income families visit the nonprofit camp where they can learn how to drive a dog sled. For them, the priceless education comes at no charge.

Kids inhale life on 100-plus acres of heavenly tundra just north of Duluth.

Positive Energy Outdoors, a nonprofit camp founded in 2004 by wife Steph Love and husband Blake Cazier, offers dog sled and draft horse rides in winter, and kayaking, rock climbing, and other REI-style fun during more agreeable months on the North Shore. 

For those with means, the good times at Positive Energy don't come cheap: A day of dog sledding and sleigh rides, for example, costs $200 per child, $400 per adult.  

But not everyone's paying for the thrill. Positive Energy Outdoors, based in Fredenberg Township, frequently caters to disadvantaged youth from the Duluth metro area, a 20-minute drive to the south. In order to get those youngsters outdoors free-of-charge, the charity gets funding from grants, donations, and partnerships with other nonprofits like the local United Way and YWCA.  

"Our mission is we help get people outside through animal-powered exploration," Love says. "Because everybody needs to be outdoors more, particularly children who wouldn't have access otherwise."

Positive Energy uses its own 32-acre property,  rolling terrain carved by glaciers that's now home to 55 winterized dogs and two horses. There's an open bog and wetlands, old-growth white pines interspersed in a maple tree forest, and shoreline along Fredenberg Lake.  

Beside the camp property sits 80 acres of public land, which the nonprofit uses for dog sled runs, snowshoeing, and other activities.

After a dozen years of operation, Positive Energy has become an ecotourism destination for about 2,000 people annually, 1,200 of them kids, almost half of whom come from low- or moderate-income families.

The camp's success brought increased traffic. The county responded, first in 2008 and again in 2013, by requiring Positive Energy to obtain new use permits. The camp did, agreeing to noise, traffic, and parking measures, among others.

Neighbors continued to squawk. Among them was Deb Pawlowicz, who in November 2016 would be elected a Fredenberg town supervisor. 

Frosty relations with some neighbors became a deep freeze in 2014. The 80 acres of adjacent public land, which had belonged to St. Louis County by way of tax forfeiture, was gifted to Fredenberg Township. The new property owner promised the land would remain a park and, according to court records, left in its natural state for "public enjoyment," which included snowmobiling, cross country skiing, and dog sledding. 

The township next moved to restrict use on the land. In March 2016 it approved a new ordinance that appeared to be tailor-made for Fredenberg Park. The rule prohibited any "commercial" enterprise, which was defined as recreational use "for business or financial gain." Those wanting to use the park for group outings or a specific purpose could avoid the ban by getting a permit. 

Local officials told camp operators they needed that paperwork. And no, charity status didn't absolve Positive Energy from being considered "commercial" users, Love and Cazier were told, to their surprise.

The township's denial came in August, five months after the application was initially submitted. Camp activities were inconsistent with the park's intended uses, it said.    

"It would pretty much shut us down," Love says. "We wouldn't be able to operate without access to that public land." 

Positive Energy fired back, filing suit in District Court in October, accusing Fredenberg officials of unlawfully denying access. St. Louis County and the state of Minnesota were also named as defendants, with the outdoors outfit faulting the way control of the public land was transferred to the township.

Judge Dale Harris agreed. His December 30 order, which prohibits enforcement of the ordinance, will stay in effect until the case is settled. That will likely be sometime in 2017.   

"There is no evidence [the township] has even tried to enforce the ordinance," Harris wrote, which led him to conclude it was "implemented specifically to target" Positive Energy. 

Messages left with Fredenberg Town Hall were not returned. Deb Pawlowicz was unavailable for comment, but her husband, Tom, who styles himself as a self-deputized "park ranger for the park," blames Positive Energy for "ruining our quality of life."

The Pawlowiczs, the camp, and a handful of others have addresses on Datka Road, an unpaved county roadway that dead-ends near Fredenberg Lake.

"What they do back there is a good thing," says Tom. "I'll never say otherwise. But it's gotten to be too much and the neighbors can't stand it anymore. Listening to 55 dogs barking constantly, I tell you. And people going there from Minneapolis, they're flying down the road in their Subarus. We got horses, dogs, kids here."

He poohs-poohs any mention of the camp's mission. 

"I know they'll say they're serving poor kids," he says. "That's a ploy for the soft-hearted. Anybody can file the paperwork saying they're a charity. I'm telling you they charge $300 to everyone wanting to come out there. The place doesn't belong here."

Love and her husband couldn't disagree more. 

"Getting children outdoors is more important than ever," Love says. "Helping them develop skills to be healthy that come from being outside, that's huge. It develops skills to be healthy adults. And the outdoors is the way we do that. It's the power of being outside, and the positive social interactions that come with it."