BRAINERD - Pontoon cruises along one of the wildest stretches of the Mississippi River are a pastime of Lawrence and Marian Severt.
Homeowners for 15 years on a lake connected to the river-Rice-the couple makes a habit of meandering to the northeast against the gentle current of the iconic waterway. They've come to know the arrival and departure times of migrating birds, the wild rice beds preferred by harvesters and the best spots to view bald eagle families in their nests.
"It's like almost going into another century, because things are so wild from here north," Lawrence Severt said.
On one of these trips last summer, the Severts said they were shocked to see a swath of mature trees cleared along the banks, revealing a home under construction at the pinnacle of a steep bluff. The cleared area stood in stark contrast to the landscape surrounding it.
"It was clear-cut," said Lawrence Severt. "On either side, it wasn't touched."
Lawrence Severt, a supervisor for Oak Lawn Township, said one of the first things he did was call Crow Wing County Land Services. He wanted to know how such a dramatic change to an otherwise heavily wooded landscape was permitted.
"The damage was done when we saw it," Severt said. "They denuded it to the point that if a heavy rain had come, that whole bank would have washed into the river."
An order to restore
The property that so concerned the Severts is owned by the Rev. James "Mac" Hammond and the Rev. Lynne Hammond, the husband and wife senior pastor team of Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park. The nondenominational megachurch espouses what's referred to as "prosperity gospel." Mac Hammond is the host of "Winner's Minute," broadcast on WCCO and Fox News, and "Winner's Way," a half-hour show on the Believer's Voice of Victory Network on DISH Network.
The 10 acres of land owned by the Hammonds are in the midst of hundreds of acres held by the church, including an island to the north of the home.
Chris Pence, Crow Wing County division manager for environmental services, said he and another staff member visited the site late last summer in response to complaints concerning the tree clearing. After walking the property, Pence said they found an area stretching 320 feet wide and 210 feet up the bluff where the trees were removed. He said they determined it met criteria for an enforcement case and would be subject to a restoration order. Pence said the property owners quickly agreed to comply with the order.
"What we want is voluntary compliance," Pence said in an interview last fall. "We want people to, when things do get out of compliance, we want people to choose to do the right thing. We're there to help them make those choices and help them get that restored, which they did wholeheartedly and were glad to do it."
To comply with an order, property owners may hire a private consultant to create a restoration plan or they may choose to work with the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District. The Hammonds opted for the latter. Beth Hippert, district technician with Crow Wing SWCD, coordinated the restoration plan for the property.
The plan drafted by SWCD suggested planting trees, shrubs and native seeds to match the site conditions, with intentions of restoring the property to its "pre-cut condition." The plan summary noted the plant community in the area was identified by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as "Species of Greatest Conservation Need."
"Trees and shrubs were selected to restore the habitat needed to support these species," the restoration plan stated.
The trees were planted in the fall, Pence said, and he confirmed the planting of shrubs and the application of seed mixes were completed late last month.
"When you look at a site that's got steep slopes-I mean, it was a steep slope, a bluff area-that's what gets you concerned," Pence said. "Bluffs and steep slopes have soil that is pretty sandy, pretty erodible and so you really want to keep that vegetation there. The root systems really hold everything in place. So that's what was the real concern. ... You do need those trees to help hold in that soil."
"When we got out there and talked to the guys from the church, they didn't disagree. They didn't want to have any problems up there either. They're building a building up top, and the last thing they would want is to have erosion causing that to have any questionable issues."
Pence said issues like these within the Mississippi River corridor involve the Mississippi Headwaters Board as well. The MHB is a joint powers board consisting of representatives from eight counties, including Crow Wing. The board, established through state legislation, is intended to give some local control to those most affected by conservation efforts along the river. Pence said Tim Terrill, the headwaters board executive director, was made aware of the enforcement action and agreed with the solution.
Megachurch pastors 'mortified'
The Brainerd Dispatch reached out to the Hammonds to discuss the property, but was directed instead to the Rev. Brian Sullivan, associate pastor at Living Word Christian Center in charge of media relations. During a May 18 conversation, Sullivan said the Hammonds were on sabbatical.
Sullivan said the home under construction on the bluff will be the primary residence of the pastors upon their retirement. He said the Hammonds purchased the property from the church in 2016.
The church has owned the property since 1998, when it borrowed $1 million to purchase the acreage, according to a report completed by the non-bank lender Marshall Financial Group.
Crow Wing County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson said the two parcels now in the Hammonds' names were created in January 2016 with a quit claim deed from the church. Erickson said the deed tax paid suggested a purchase price of $37,850 for the riverfront property. The 2017 assessed value of the two properties, according to tax statements, was $193,300 for the land. Including the building value, the property was valued at $501,000.
Sullivan described the Hammonds' reaction as "mortified" when they discovered the extent to which trees on the property were cleared. He said it was never the property owners' intention to permit such dramatic clearing, but rather to clean up what Sullivan described as debris caused by a damaging wind event called a blowdown.
"When they purchased the property, there was quite a bit of trees, debris, remnants of the forest that littered the site and went down the embankment," Sullivan said in a phone interview. "They hired a logger in the area to do cleanup. The logger pulled probably, cleaned up the property, in the process of cleaning up the property and particularly the embankment ... inadvertently took down a number of trees."
Sullivan said the couple spent about $10,000 to restore the site, planting upwards of 3,500 native plant seedlings on the steep embankment-a commitment showing their intent to remedy the environmental concerns.
"Mistakes are made," Sullivan said. "Things happen. This is kind of an unfortunate turn of events. The Hammonds would never portray the logger as the villain in this, or in any way accuse him of wrongdoing. It was an unfortunate set of events that once discovered, (they said), 'We've got to stop the work and we've got to correct this.'"
Blowdown or bluff view?
Lawrence Severt said when he followed up with county land services concerning the site, he was not convinced a blowdown was a reasonable explanation for what occurred. Severt based this skepticism on observing the surrounding landscape, which did not appear affected by any recent wind storms. He said he believed the land was cleared to create a view of the river and surrounding attractive landscape. Even with the trees and shrubs the property owners were required to plant, Severt said it would take decades for the site to begin resembling the old-growth forests that once stood there.
"That was criminal," Severt said. "As far as I'm concerned, it was criminal. There should have been more of a reaction to it than just, 'Plant some trees or shrubs.'"
Severt said although he didn't expect this one parcel to have an impact on the vast Mississippi River, his concern was rooted in haphazard river development becoming a tendency.
"We wouldn't want that to be a habit," Severt said. "That piece is probably not going to affect the river tremendously, but we certainly don't want it to be a trend."
Pence noted blowdown was also the explanation he was given for the clearing, and he had no reason to doubt the veracity of those claims.
"The hard part, when you're dealing with such a steep slope, it takes some mechanized equipment to get down there. I think when you do that, there is some inherent damage to using that to get there," Pence said. "I think we all kind of agreed on the site that there might have been a little bit more than what was needed for what they cleaned up. At the end of the day, I wouldn't want to stand in front of a judge and argue that there wasn't (blowdown). I'll put it that way. I don't think that there was enough information there to judge that there wasn't blowdown, and they just went and clearcut just because that's what they wanted to do."
Sullivan said achieving a better view was "absolutely not their (the Hammonds) intention." Sullivan, who did not see the property in person, said he could speculate the blowdown must have been extensive enough to require some clearing.
"I don't know to the extent of the blowdown," Sullivan said. "I can assure you that if it wasn't substantive, I don't think they would have invested the time and resource to have a logger come out and clear it. ... I can speculate. They had a professional logger come out and look at it. Maybe the logger recommended that, because of the potential fire hazard."
Sullivan further stated the reason that stretch of river remains as beautiful and untouched as it is, is directly a result of the church's own stewardship. Sullivan said the approximately 500 acres owned by the church along the river are some of a number of real estate holdings to create additional revenue streams.
"If you look at the history of our ownership of the property, the church has been great neighbors," Sullivan said. "We've cared for that property. It's pristine. We've protected it. There's no way that Pastor and Mrs. Hammond had intended to have this happen. They wanted it to be natural and to look like the rest of the adjacent land."
Sullivan said the church has had opportunities in the past to develop the land, but chose not to.
"I think there are a lot of developers who would like to get their hands on it," Sullivan said. "We want to protect it. We think it's a good investment. At this point, we have no intention of selling it. It certainly-having that property has enhanced our loan-to-value ratio as a ministry. Really recognizing the value of that property in context to the river and the community has caused us to really, as a ministry, go, 'Let's continue to care for it. Let's continue to protect it.'"
Pence said the property owners completed all that is expected of them concerning restoration of the bluff.
"They got right on it," Pence said. "From a compliance perspective, this was fast."