St. Charles Does it Right. Is Ortonville Listening?

This morning’s Star Tribune features an article on a municipality that is responsive to the needs of its citizens–and respectful of its relationships with other local governments.

In “Mining-hub town of St. Charles says no to major frac sand facility,” Tony Kennedy reports,

The City Council unanimously passed the resolution denying all annexation requests from landowners in neighboring St. Charles Township who are aligned with frac sand developer Minnesota Proppant LLC for a major project.

The company had sought city annexation of its proposed site, now farmland, because township officials were against the project.

In many ways, the situation in St. Charles resembles that in Big Stone County, where, in early 2012, Strata Corporation sought a CUP for an aggregate quarry along the upper Minnesota River, in Ortonville Township.

Despite intense citizen opposition to the project, the CUP was granted by Big Stone County Commissioners last spring–but not before the Ortonville Township Board of Supervisors passed an interim ordinance in order to study the effects of further industrial development in the township, and to protect the health, safety, and quality of life of its residents.

The interim ordinance, which placed a moratorium on new development and enabled the township to take over its own land use planning, was seen as the safest route after it became clear, during public hearings and individual meetings with county commissioners, that county officials felt pressured by Strata and Ortonville EDA Director Vicki Oakes (who resigned her other position as chair of the county’s planning & zoning commission after their approval of Strata’s CUP) to do the company’s bidding rather than that of the majority of their own citizens.

Stymied by the Township’s interim ordinance, Oakes worked (and continues to work) with Strata Corp. and proposed quarry site landowners to circumvent citizens’ rights to determine what constitutes appropriate development in their midst, and to undermine working relationships between local governments. Oakes’ blog, “Quarry Talk,” ridiculed Ortonville Township for their work protecting area residents. In a post dated August 5 of last year, “New Township Zoning-The Future!” Oakes wrote,

If individual Township Zoning is such a great idea – and surely we come from a very rich tax base so as to afford and encourage this – I was thinking that maybe then it would make sense for all 14 of our Townships to also create their own comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances.  But then I was thinking, I live in Ortonville – and we have a population of about 1,900 vs that of the appx. 100 or less of the Ortonville Township… maybe, so that I am better represented in my immediate neighborhood, the City of Ortonville should break into Wards of about the same size… 19 wards in Ortonville with their own Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinances… and of course Boards and Staff to maintain them.

Beyond the ridicule, a further point of the post appears to be discrediting the work of area nonprofit organizations (Clean Up the River Environment is specifically targeted) as enemies and outside agitators. We all know small non-profits have loads of free time and cash just so they can show up and “make trouble”–never mind their strong local membership base and those explicit requests for help from residents. It’s a running joke community organizers are well aware of.

But let’s get back to the parallels and divergences of the St. Charles City/St. Charles Township situation. Like in Ortonville Township, landowners with a stake in the St. Charles frac sand development project attempted to persuade the neighboring city to annex the land away from the township. In the City of Ortonville, the reaction was to hastily change zoning rules to avoid more messy public hearings, and to move full speed ahead on annexation–damn the torpedoes and the people who live there.

This morning’s Star Tribune article paints a very different (and yes, I think pleasing) picture of what can happen when local government actually listens:

The company had sought city annexation of its proposed site, now farmland, because township officials were against the project.

Mayor Bill Spitzer said the issue was tearing the community apart. His biggest reason for saying “no” to the project, he said, was to stay on good terms with the township. “Once you start destroying relationships, you can’t move forward,” Spitzer said.

Throughout public hearings on both county (back when they had jurisdiction) and city levels, we in Big Stone County have heard time and again that intergovernmental relationships and citizen sentiment don’t have a place in the process. So long as the corporation has fulfilled all its paperwork and permit obligations, we’ve been told, local government officials have to say yes.

Residents have also been told, during public hearings on Ortonville city’s annexation of the proposed quarry site (which would handily remove the township’s jurisdictional prerogative), that no comments would be allowed concerning the proposed use of the land. “That’s land use,” we were told. “This hearing is only about annexation.” Speakers at the hearing were cut off if they diverged into why the city was considering annexation of the don’t-say-quarry site. And more than one of those speakers called BS–as they should. That hearing, according to the bulk of attendees, was an embarrassment to good government.

In the City of St. Charles, a very different story has played out, and a very different outcome achieved:

The proposed resolution stated several reasons the city is denying annexation, including “significant opposition from its citizens,” a desire to “maintain positive intergovernmental relations” with the township, and its own concerns over potential environmental, financial, regulatory and transportation-related impacts of the project.

Wait…what? You mean you can actually deny annexation on these grounds–and because of the actual project that’s proposed there?

Well, of course you can. And it’s what we’ve been saying all along here in Big Stone County.

The question we’re left with now is this: who’s been pulling the wool over whose eyes? Has Strata so dazzled some local government officials with their suits and lawyers that our representatives have come to believe they no longer hold the power we citizens have invested in them?

Or are local government officials feeding us a hands-tied line we’ve known all along (and the St. Charles decision exemplifies) to be false?

Currently, the City of Ortonville, Strata Corp., Ortonville EDA, and the landowners (the proposed quarry site was split into narrow slivers with different owners–each touching the city boundary–to circumvent state law allowing annexation of only 120 acres per owner per year) are awaiting word from the state’s Municipal Boundaries Adjustment Unit on whether their eagerly-anticipated annexation will be approved.

Ortonville Township has, of course, offered detailed objections to the annexation, including questions about the baffling assertion by landowners that the site, which has been home to grazing cattle for decades and granite outcrops (for which our county is named) for millennia, has always been industrial in nature.

If the MBAU approves the city’s annexation (the decision is expected by the end of this week), we expect the new Strata CUP application to arrive at the Ortonville city office within days, and the public hearing shortly to follow.

And, thanks to St. Charles’ fine example, we are now all very clear on what major development decisions can, and ought to be based on. You can be sure that, should the quarry permitting process move forward, each city council member will receive their very own annotated copy of Kennedy’s article, along with some very pointed questions about the city’s process during the upcoming public hearing.

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2 responses

  1. How long do you have to live in an area before you’re not called an outsider anymore? Maybe you have to be an insider to have your opinion mean something.

  2. Pingback: Something is Better than Nothing (Outcrop Chronicle, Part Two) | Big Stone Bounty

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