This week’s Ortonville Independent features a front page above-the-fold article declaring “Agreement Reached on Big Stone Quarry Project,” in which Strata’s Business Development Manager, Bill LaFond, is quoted as being “very pleased to have resolved any past differences with the Township,” and that they “look forward to continuing to build a positive relationship with them and their citizens for years to come.”
I’m going not very far out on a limb here to suggest that the glaring omission of any comment from Ortonville Township’s board or residents makes this an obvious Strata-crafted piece of PR spin, and that the orderly annexation deal they’ve struck is not a route the township took happily or willingly.
In case you’re coming newly to this subject, or are in need of a refresher, the following two-part blog post details much of that Strata quarry project process up to the present time, and provides significant commentary and documentation of what it actually looked like on the ground in Big Stone County.
It also belies the assertion that a “positive relationship” between Strata Corporation and Ortonville Township is likely or even possible.
As a community organizer and resident of Big Stone County, I have followed this process closely, attending nearly every meeting and public hearing dealing with the Strata quarry project on both county and city levels (and many on the township level), as well as state-level hearings on legislation designed to curb some of the abuses of authority that plagued the process here (and are likely to show up elsewhere in the state if legislation is not passed).
The proposed Strata aggregate quarry project in Ortonville Township, along the headwaters of the Minnesota River, first came to light in a January 5, 2012 public meeting of the Big Stone County Planning and Zoning Commission, headed up by then-chair (and Ortonville EDA Director) Vicki Oakes.
Township residents had heard rumors of a potential new quarry project for some months, but were consistently assured by county employees that it would “never happen.” Landowners adjacent to the proposed quarry project site were never contacted by Strata Corporation, although Strata spokesmen assured them during hearings that while, “no one wants a quarry in their backyard,” the corporation would prove to be a “good neighbor.”
Those early hearings took place in Clinton–about ten miles north of the township in question, and despite majority opposition to the project from crowds that at times held 100 citizens (Big Stone County’s population is a little over 5000 people), and vocal concerns about property values, health and safety issues, and environmental impacts, the project was recommended to the Big Stone County Commission without requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The decision to require only a Strata-prepared Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) was made before the public was aware of the project, and the Planning and Zoning Commission steadfastly refused to consider altering that requirement even under heavy pressure from residents.
Instead, representatives from Strata were invited to make lengthy presentations (complete with video of blasting rock and dust clouds) at the beginning of meetings, essentially attempting to “sell” the project to an incredulous public, and pushing the time for public comment late into the evening hours on school and work nights.
At one point, protesters from the county and the region marched down Clinton’s Main Street holding signs protesting the probable destruction of granite outcrops that give Big Stone County its name. Of course, because we are in Big Stone County, the protesters politely left their signs outside the Memorial Building when the hearing began.
Sensing the direction of these hearings and heeding the concerns of their residents, frustrated with the number of undesirable projects their tiny township had been saddled with over the years, the Ortonville Township Board of Supervisors passed an interim ordinance in early February. The ordinance blocked further development in the township as the board studied the issue and considered developing their own land use plan and planning and zoning commission.
The ability of townships (and other small municipalities) to pass an interim ordinance and exercise what’s know as “local control” is a fundamental piece of Minnesota’s democracy, and it can protect citizens from large scale and potentially harmful development, often by people who don’t actually live there.
That same spring, Clark Mastel, a second generation rancher on the land being considered for the quarry, made headlines by speaking out about the project, and about his initial meeting with Strata’s Bill LaFond, who first visited the outcrops area masquerading as a guy looking for grass for his cattle (and not, as was later revealed, rock for his crushers).
An upright, good-looking cowboy getting so much press didn’t sit too well with Strata, and so they drafted a letter for Mastel’s landlord to have him sign, wherein Clark would apologize for being a bur under the saddle of Strata and the township and pull a 180 on his sentiments about how well his cows and Strata’s blast-and-crush operation would get along.
Instead, Mastel walked out with the letter and shared it with allies, and it soon made headlines around the region. You can read the letter and listen to public hearing testimony from Mastel captured by Bluestem Prairie’s Sally Jo Sorenson here on the Big Stone Bolder blog.
Meanwhile, Ortonville Township Supervisors invited each of the Big Stone County Commissioners to meet with them and discuss township and resident concerns, the interim ordinance, and to ask commissioners to refrain from voting (or to vote no) on Strata’s Conditional Use Permit, since the county no longer held jurisdictional authority. I was present at all of those meetings save that with Joseph Berning, who represents the district in which Ortonville Township lies.
(Later that fall, according to sources involved in tallying election results, Berning won re-election to the Big Stone County Commission by default because so many of those who wrote in his challenger’s name forgot to blacken the oval next to it. Berning has since been named chair by his fellow commissioners.)
One particularly poignant moment from those township-commissioner meetings came when Township Supervisor Al Webster read to Commissioner Brent Olson from one of Olson’s own books–a passage wherein Olson praised townships as the only truly legitimate and representative form of government. Webster then asked Olson if he truly believed what he’d written; a question that Olson did not satisfactorily answer until his vote on the project’s Conditional Use Permit.
Another interesting piece of information related in this series of meetings by then-Commission Chair Walter Wulff was that the county receives a substantial yearly bonus from their insurance company for “not getting sued.” There was concern amongst the commissioners that Strata would pursue legal action should the commission vote against the recommendations of the Planning and Zoning Board, causing the county to lose that money.
Part two of this post relating the process by which Strata, Big Stone County Commissioners, and the City of Ortonville forced through an unwanted aggregate quarry project in Ortonville Township and along the headwaters of the Minnesota River is available here.