Anoka County History: Looking back at opposition to incorporation of East Bethel

Here’s a history quiz for Anoka County residents: Which community had to go through the Minnesota Supreme Court and the state Legislature to incorporate as a village?

People who lived here in the 1950s may know the answer, as do many of the residents of the community (now a city) in question. A lot of folks in Coon Lake Beach, which led the opposition to incorporation, haven’t forgotten. The saga is told not only in old copies of the Union and the Herald, but also in a brief history attached to the city’s website, and it made quite a few headlines as the ‘50s came to a close.

The answer is East Bethel, and the story began in 1957, when residents of what was then Bethel Township presented a petition to the Anoka County commissioners. The small downtown area of Bethel was already a village, but the petitioners asked that the rest of the township be allowed to incorporate as a second village. The commission agreed that a vote could be held, and in June the citizens voted 232 to 161 to incorporate.

Most of the opposition came from one corner of the region — Coon Lake Beach, a decades-old platted area that was cut off from the rest of Bethel by Coon Lake. The residents there thought themselves more as an independent community and only grudgingly admitted to being part of Bethel. They claimed that the township provided inadequate fire services and did little to improve the roads. Coon Lake Beachers tried to thwart the election by working up a petition for their own incorporation (snatching a section of Columbus Township in the process), but the effort went nowhere.

The 232-to-161 vote seemed to have carried the day, but people who didn’t want to be East Bethel villagers chose not to mildly accept the result. The newly formed entity, they argued, was rural in nature and didn’t have the population density required by a 19th century Minnesota law. A court agreed and nullified the incorporation. The issue wound up in the Minnesota Supreme Court, which appointed a referee to make a ruling. In the summer of 1958, Judge E. R. Selnes said East Bethel was not suburban and showed no signs that it soon would be, declaring the “purported incorporation” was null and void.

The opponents had won the battle but the war wasn’t over. In 1959 the pro-incorporationists went to the state Legislature and convinced them to modify the old law. Once that was done, nothing stood in the way and East Bethel became a village on April 27, 1959. In 1974 it became a city. As a result of this wrangling, when you look at a county map today, you see the almost-rectangular outline of East Bethel, with the city of Bethel taking a chunk out of the northwest corner and Coon Lake Beach still tucked under the lake in the southeast.

John Evans is a volunteer and member of the Anoka County Historical Society.

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