A Broader Perspective for the City of Ortonville?

Late last week, I accompanied Ortonville Township officials to St. Paul, where they testified in favor of HF 1425, a bill designed to curb the abuse of annexation by ordinance by cities in Minnesota.

Along with their testimony, the township officials provided members of the House Government Operations Committee with a map of the proposed Strata quarry site parcels, as subdivided to allow the City of Ortonville to circumvent Minnesota state law allowing annexation by ordinance of only 120 acres per owner per year.

Ortonville Township was not the only township present to testify about abuses of annexation by ordinance by neighboring municipalities, but it turned out that their testimony, and especially the “reality of the map” was a key element in persuading the Representatives that some highly “creative” work-arounds are taking place in greater Minnesota.

Ortonville Mayor Steve Berkner was also present, and testified about how his city struggles to attract new development. It wasn’t clear from his testimony how the new developments described (except for the quarry) required more than 120 acres, but he didn’t field any questions on that point.

And since Mayor Berkner’s testimony preceded that of Ortonville Township Supervisor Al Webster (and the distribution of the city’s annexation map), it was Craig Johnson from the League of Minnesota Cities, who testified alongside Bradley Peterson from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, who ended up in the hot seat about Ortonville’s apparent end-run around the process.

Some excerpts of those questions:

Representative Hansen: “I understand what you’re saying about process and complexity, but then I look at this map, and I see…you know, I’ve seen some creative redistricting lines in the past, but this is really, really something, I mean in terms of creativity to have annexation. So, how do we deal…I think the bill is probably here because we’re dealing with the reality of the map and when we have a creative action to try to provide…getting around the process. So, how do you deal with this? How…if we don’t have a bill for the existing process, how do you deal with this? Because this doesn’t look right. This looks extremely creative, and when we have this much creativity here, I think people start asking questions. When people try to be as creative…if this was a redistricting map we’d say wow–quite something. For annexation…I say wow, this is…this is quite something. So how do we deal with this? How do citizens deal with this if it happens in Minnesota?”

Representative Freiberg: “I can see Representative Hansen’s point here because the map did really kind of jump out at me, and it does seem like it’s an effort to work around the 120 acre limit that’s in here, comparable to some kind of gerrymandering proposal, like he suggested. So, to me at least the issue is not just whether any potential legislation would fix this specific situation.  I have to imagine, though, when something like this happens once it seems like there’s the potential it could happen again. So it does seem like potentially there is the need for some sort of legislation just to prevent what appears to be an end run around the law from happening again.”

You can listen to the entire hearing on HF 1425 here. The portion I have referenced above starts at about 46:06.

In the past couple of weeks, Representative Andrew Falk (who authored HF 1425, and represented Big Stone County before the recent redistricting) has taken quite a drubbing from Mayor Berkner through various local media outlets and in the last city council meeting. According to Berkner, Rep. Falk has “attacked” the City of Ortonville through recent legislation and acted on matters that are outside his district.

But a wider perspective clearly indicates that the way in which Ortonville attempted to annex the proposed Strata quarry site ran afoul of the spirit of Minnesota law, and even the League of Minnesota Cities isn’t denying it. The question then becomes, how best to curb this kind of creativity-in-annexation and still allow for good development across the state.

While HF 1425 is tabled for the time being, Committee Chair Rep. Michael Nelson secured commitments from the Minnesota Association of Townships, the League of Minnesota Cities, and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities to sit down and work out a compromise to remedy the situation in Big Stone County, so that it might not end up affecting the entire state.

With a Strata quarry Conditional Use Permit public hearing scheduled for tomorrow night (Tuesday, April 7th) at 7pm in Ortonville Public Library’s media center, we’ll soon have an answer to whether the City of Ortonville is as committed to negotiating as are the other parties involved, or if they will persist in a course of action that clearly violates the spirit of Minnesota law.

 

 

 

 

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Keeping the Community in Healthy Food Access

Accessing fresh, healthy, and affordable foods in rural communities can be a real struggle. Helping people in Big Stone County build those healthy, local food systems has been my work for the past couple of years, and we have seen some good results from it, along with some economic revitalization in the local food sector. There’s always more to be done.

Production of and access to fresh, affordable produce in a rural “food desert” is a problem with many facets: producers cope with weather stresses, low prices, and lack of markets for their product; retailers deal with quality, pricing, and sourcing issues, and consumers may not always be able to get what they want for a price they’re comfortable paying.

So, it seems like any strategy that can help community members increase their access to and intake of fresh fruits and veggies at an affordable price would be a real boon. Bountiful Baskets, a buying club with chapters across the western U.S. and now starting up in Ortonville, purports to do just that. For a $15 (or $25 for the organic option) “financial contribution,” local residents will be able to place an order online for a large portion of produce and pick it up every other week.

Bountiful Baskets calls itself a “Food Co-op,” and its local organizers refer to it as a “non-profit volunteer co-op.” But Bountiful Baskets does not appear to be incorporated as a co-op nor registered as a non-profit in any of the several western states’ records I searched. It was started in 2009 as a for-profit corporation in Arizona, and it was administratively dissolved by the state in 2011 for failure to file annual reports.

Still, Bountiful Baskets organizers refer to the service in the language used by its administrators, and those administrators are careful to indicate that you are not “ordering” the merchandise, you’re contributing to a pool of money to, well, order something with a whole bunch of other people:

“Making a contribution is sometimes referred to as ‘ordering’, but this is not accurate. We call it contributing or participating, because Bountiful Baskets is not a business that you buy from, but rather a co-op where we all pool our money to buy things together.”

So, why does it matter that they are not incorporated as an actual co-op or non-profit? Because being a real co-op actually means something beyond putting your money in a collective pot to purchase a basket of goods–specifically, a co-op is a member-owned, democratically controlled enterprise that operates according to a specific set of principles. The Granary Food Co-op in Ortonville is one such incorporated cooperative, serving its member-owners and community since 1979.

Being a non-profit actually means something, too. Actual non-profits must report how their money is spent–but Bountiful Baskets is silent on the subject of staff, profits, or anything fiscally related other than the above-quoted “contribution” piece. Being a non-profit does not simply mean that you’re relying on local people to do work without being paid, which is a part of the Bountiful scheme.

Bountiful Baskets and its organizers talk about this service being a great community-building enterprise, and there certainly does seem to be a sense of camaraderie among the volunteers at pick-up sites from the comments and reviews I saw online. But, no money is retained in the local community from these online “contributions.” Food from Mexico and the southwestern U.S. comes in on a truck and gets sorted out and taken home by individual “contributors,” bypassing local grocery stores, local farmers markets, and yes, the local food co-op.

In short, Bountiful Baskets is simply a buying club–and one in which you’ll for the most part be purchasing things you can already get locally. Calling it a co-op or a non-profit or comparing it to a CSA (you never know what you’ll get!) or farmers market (all that produce!) is simply disingenuous–capitalizing on the good feelings people have for those things while not actually doing the things that make people feel good about them.

This is not to disparage those unpaid local organizers attempting to set up chapters in their communities–I can certainly empathize with the strain of sourcing good food on a budget–it is simply to tell the truth about what this business is and what it isn’t.

And it is also to ask specific questions: Where do the “contributions” go? Where does the food come from? Who is making money from this enterprise, and how much are they making?

Yes, ordering through Bountiful Baskets can save you money. But the money you’re saving over buying locally is money that pays for local jobs and local infrastructure in your community. It’s money that keeps the rent paid, the lights on, the coolers running, and the farmers farming. It’s money that pays for employees and the merchandise they stock on the shelves.

Building local food systems and increasing access to healthy food isn’t just about the food itself–it’s also about the role of healthy food and local grocery stores in a strong and diversified local economy. Sourcing cheaper produce by circumventing local retailers may be a boost for your family’s budget, but it should not be confused with real strategies for building and investing in community.

Candy Culture

gummy bears

As a kid, I frequently went on errands with my mom–the typical stuff like bank, library, offices of various kinds, supermarket, meat market. Occasionally, if I was really good, she’d buy one of those little square chocolate bars with fruit and nuts, and we’d share it.

Otherwise, candy wasn’t a feature of my day-to-day childhood, and soda was not a regular beverage in our household–we’d have a bottle or two of ginger ale stashed for illnesses, but it was a real treat to get a root beer or a Hawaiian Punch. Holidays and visits to grandparents’ houses were exceptions, of course.

I try to follow that same policy with my son when it comes to treats, but it’s a lot harder to do these days. It seems that in every office, every bank, every place I stop on my errands, there is a bowl of candy sitting there. Heck, in a lot of places, if you are going through a drive-through, they’ll put a sucker or Tootsie Roll in with your receipt if they see you have a kid in the car.

Not only that, but in a lot of schools and at a lot of kids’ activities, prizes for achievement are candy and soda (sometimes three liter bottles!), and many of the fundraising drives done by schools focus on selling sweet treats. You just cannot get away from it.

You can respond, “well, just tell him he can’t have it.” And yes, I can, and I have. But when your kid returns from a field trip with a half-consumed pop in hand, or he wins a prize for reading and comes home clutching a bagful of candy (a large amount of which he’s already stuffed in his mouth), what exactly is the right thing to do?

Great job, kiddo, now give me that soda, so I can dump it down the sink!

It’d be one thing if it was an infrequent occurrence (and if well-meaning adults didn’t think it’s “better” to hand a kid a zero-calorie chemical cocktail as a “healthier” alternative to HFCS-laden pop), but it’s not. Kids today have far greater exposure to sugary treats on a daily basis than most of us ever did. And it’s wearing on parents to constantly say no, no, no to the sweet barrage.

Still, I don’t think the answer is more government regulation of treats. There’s been a great deal of discussion in the health community about whether making sugary beverages “controlled substances” could help alleviate the obesity epidemic in this country–especially among children.

Frankly, I doubt such regulations would pass (as NYC Mayor Bloomberg has discovered), and as a colleague of mine commented, the last thing you want is people holding up a 36oz. soda as a sign of independence or victory over Big Government.

The Ortonville Early Childhood Initiative took a laudable step in the right direction earlier this month by offering healthier treats, like real fruit leather, as prizes at the annual Sports & Leisure Show kids’ carnival. Parents and others who are concerned about the health of children should take an active role in limiting the amount of treats kids are exposed to–by (politely, of course) asking businesses to put away their candy bowls and insisting that schools and organizers of kids’ activities provide healthier treats and prizes.

Stashing the public candy dishes and offering health-conscious prizes and fundraising activities are small steps in the fight against childhood obesity, and government and the health care industry most certainly have a role in the bigger picture, as well.

It will take work on all levels to cut down on the pervasive presence of unhealthy snacks and to curb the candy culture that exists in our country.

What do you see as appropriate roles for parents, educators, government, and others in this fight?

Sharin’ of the Green

Last St. Patrick’s Day, I planted peas. This St. Patrick’s Day, we’re still locked solidly in winter, with a blizzard warning in effect.

But it wasn’t hard to chase the late winter blues away spending an afternoon in Elk’s Bluff Winter Greenhouse, surrounded by beds and hanging planters crammed with greens gorgeous enough for the devil on my shoulder to suggest that sinking down on my knees and grazing might be an option.

Luckily, there was a full salad bowl included with lunch at the Deep Winter Producer’s Association meeting just north of Montevideo, and no one looked askance when I filled my plate twice.

Carol Ford and Chuck Waibel led the discussion, along with hosts Tim and Shelly Elkington, for a group of about twenty would-be winter greenhouse producers from as far away as the Iron Range.

With their Garden Goddess Enterprises in Milan, Chuck and Carol are pioneers in the practice of passive solar greenhouse design and production here in Minnesota, and their presentations and book, The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual, have spawned many similar projects throughout the colder latitudes.

Elk’s Bluff isn’t far, distance-wise, from Garden Goddess, but the Elkingtons have engineered a larger greenhouse with some different design features from the original. The meeting covered a few of those differences, but also featured some discussion of what benefits an association might have for clusters of winter producers–including building parties, aggregated materials and supply sourcing, and ongoing consulting services.

John and I are considering designs for a new garage/shop/summer kitchen building on the farmstead we’re purchasing, so we were there to gather information for a potential addition to this building-of-all-trades. And, well, I figured there might be something good and green to eat, too!

Marketing the bounty of the greenhouses has not posed much of a challenge for the producers–just the mention of fresh food in winter has created customer lists far longer than the small-scale producers can supply. One producer remembered a call from a manager of one of the Twin Cities farmers markets, pleading with her to bring her greens into Minneapolis. The resounding cry from the assembled crowd: “let ’em beg–we feed our own first.”

No doubt a collection of intrepid producers will at some point tap into that lucrative market, but here on the western edge of Minnesota, it would seem a crime to produce such a lovely abundance with such low energy inputs, only to burn tanks-full of gas to cart it across the state.

And, in my humble opinion, the cities don’t need to get every good thing first. A network of winter producers supplying rural Minnesota with the best, freshest food available can just as well add another layer of goodness to our good life here.

I sat down with the greenhouse manual late yesterday afternoon, before our traditional Irish supper of bacon and cabbage, and finished the thing before breakfast this morning. It looks totally doable, and pretty easy to add on to our existing plan, and so I handed it off to John for further consideration.

Instead of sugar plums, my slumber in between was punctuated by visions of buttercrunch and arugula, dancing along with me in a warm, sunny, and moist place to laugh off the winter blues.

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.