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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HF 1127–Boon for Quarries, Bad for Communities

A new bill came sailing into my inbox a couple of days ago that is a boon for L.G. Everist, but bad for two of the communities in which they operate.

Authored by District 12A Rep. Jay McNamar, HF 1127 provides for double semi trailer-loads of rock coming out of Everist’s Ortonville and Jasper, MN facilities to be transported on highways from those operations via the shortest route to South Dakota highways, where double semi trailers are currently legal.

Double semi-trailers are not currently legal on highways in Minnesota, but this isn’t the only way in which this bill sets bad precedent.

The route proposed from the Everist quarry in Ortonville Township would take loaded double semi trailers of rock up US Highway 75 to the junction of US Highway 12, with a left hand turn at one of the busiest (and most accident-prone) intersections in the county, then down the hill on US Highway 12 into Ortonville, with another left hand turn at a busy, uncontrolled intersection onto the section of US 12 that crosses the Minnesota River into Big Stone City, SD.

(May I also mention the bad precedent of a DFL’er authoring a bill that solely benefits a single corporation, with no thought to its adverse and potentially lethal impacts to the community it affects?)

As the new state representative of the district that includes Big Stone County, perhaps McNamar could be forgiven for mistakenly believing he was doing something positive for the Ortonville community.

However, McNamar made no mention of this bill at the recent cracker barrel in Ortonville nor in this week’s column in local papers, so it comes as quite a surprise to McNamar’s local constituents–especially those in Ortonville Township, who’ve struggled so long and hard to defend their quality of life in spite of unresponsive and occasionally hostile local government.

McNamar’s (Everist’s?) bill currently resides in the Transportation Policy Committee. I strongly urge you to contact members of the committee and tell them to kill this bad bill before someone else gets killed at these already dangerous intersections.

And make sure to contact Representative Jay McNamar (pronounced Mc-NAME-ur), too, and let him know that while we in Big Stone County value our local businesses, we also value our people. And good legislation needs to balance the best interests of both.

[Addition: This bill would also presumably help Strata Corp, with their proposed quarry site along that same stretch of the Upper Minnesota River. Strata is currently sourcing rock from L.G. Everist’s Ortonville Township quarry while they await word from the State of Minnesota about their quarry site’s annexation by the City of Ortonville. Strata officials told the county during CUP hearings that they’d put their rock on rail cars, but it seems likely that if this bill goes through, the US 75 to US 12 route would be blasted wide open to increasingly heavy quarry truck traffic.]

Annexation Rules Change for Proposed Quarry Site Hearing Details

Both meetings are on MONDAY, OCTOBER 15 (tomorrow, as of the date of this posting).

City of Ortonville Planning Commission public hearing (to consider a change of rules regarding how annexed land is zoned): 3pm, City Hall, 315 Madison Avenue, Ortonville, MN 56278

City of Ortonville City Council meeting (to consider recommendations of planning commission/adopt annexation rule change): 7pm, Public Library Media Center, 412 2nd Street NW, Ortonville, MN 56278

I don’t know why I was hearing there would be a special meeting of the city council at 5pm in city offices–first and third Mondays of the month at 7pm in the basement (sidehill entrance) of the library are the council’s regularly scheduled meetings, so it sounds like that is where and when the language will be considered/adopted. If I find out anything different, I will post ASAP.

These meetings are PUBLIC. And, the public is strongly urged (by me, and by all those who oppose annexation of the proposed quarry site in Ortonville Township) to attend.

If you care, do what you can to be there.

Democracy & the (Im)Polite Objection

How annoying to hear the commentary following last Thursday night’s vice presidential debate.

I’m talking about all the, “Joe Biden was too aggressive” crap. Apparently, it’s “not done” for Democrats and Progressives to call out their opponents on their bullsh…er, malarkey. We’re supposed to be the polite objectors–the effete, “I say old chap! I’m sorry, but I don’t quite agree with what you’re saying over there,” foils to the brutes and bullies stepping on our heads.

Well, I think Joe was great. He called out all the ways in which Ryan and his Mitt’s policies would harm the working class, the middle class, the elderly–the majority of people in this country. And he looked like he was having a great time doing it. It’s not that the issues aren’t serious, but quite frankly, a professorial tone isn’t the best way to reach that majority of people Joe was defending.

And, it’s not that I don’t appreciate calm and rational discussion of facts and the merits of policy. Civil discourse is a great thing. But when opponents are anything but rational and civil, well, the gloves have to come off. And it always amuses me how utterly horrified and alarmed the reaction is from those who seem to think they have a right to wield power.

Just a reminder: the whole point of democracy is that power comes from the people. If you misuse that power and mistreat the people, the power you’ve been given can and should be taken away.

Lately, I’m seeing some of this horrified-and-alarmed reaction on a local level–though here in Big Stone County it isn’t about whether one is a Democrat or Republican. It’s more about whether local government’s process should be by the people and for the people–or whether it should be by a corporation and for them, too.

For one, the citizens have learned that calling out public employees and elected officials on false or misleading statements, conflicts of interest, and non-transparent governing processes regarding permitting a destructive quarry, overstepping jurisdiction, and land-grabbing through annexation is Just. Not. Done.

In the Just-Not-Done view, it’s OK for a public employee to publicly ridicule and attempt to undermine a local government’s state-sanctioned right to engage in their own land use planning process (First Amendment rights!), but it’s Definitely Not OK for local citizens, who are contributing to that person’s salary through their tax dollars, to publicly question how those behaviors affect good relations in and among governing bodies in the county.

One might follow that “logic,” to say that some people have more First Amendment rights than others.

In terms of First Amendment rights, it’s true that the rules for disciplining public employees on their speech are somewhat tricky. But a little research about Discipline and Workplace Rights makes clear that, “[E]ven if the speech addresses matters of public concern, when the employee’s speech rights are outweighed by the disruption that the speech causes to the operations of government, the employer can discipline the employee for speech.”

Shoot. That wasn’t very polite to point out, was it?

The other totally impolite objection to those currently in power in Big Stone County is occurring in a couple of races for county commission. In two districts, write-in candidates are opposing incumbent commissioners who overstepped their jurisdiction and ignored constituent voices in approving the Conditional Use Permit for Strata Corp’s proposed aggregate quarry at the headwaters of the Minnesota River.

In District 5 (which includes Ortonville Township–site of the proposed quarry and current city annexation fight–as well as Precinct 2 in Ortonville City, Odessa Township and the City of Odessa), Mike Hartman is running as a write-in against incumbent Joseph Berning. In District 3, which includes the Cities of Clinton and Correll, as well as Townships of Almond, Akron, Artichoke, and Otrey, write-in candidate Mark Block is running against incumbent Brent Olson.

Reports have it that at least one of the incumbents is completely shocked (shocked!) that someone would run against him, as he thinks he’s done a fine job.

Of course, in a democracy, it’s not really about what an elected official thinks of the job he or she has done, it’s about what the people think of the job he or she has done.

So, it will be interesting to see how well the write-in candidates can get their messages heard and names recognized by the public in the weeks leading up to the election. Write-in campaigns have a notoriously low success rate, but with a small population it may well be easier for those candidates to let the public know they have a choice.

However impolite that may be.

Annexation of Proposed Quarry Site on Ortonville City Council Agenda

Packets have gone out to the Ortonville City Council this evening for Monday’s 7pm meeting in the Ortonville Public Library Media Center. On the agenda, under New Business: “Hedge Annexation.”

Rumors of Ortonville City’s possible annexation of the proposed Strata aggregate quarry site in Ortonville Township have been leaking out for a few weeks now, and those rumors were further fueled by a post-meeting-adjournment question to the council from Ortonville EDA Community Development Coordinator Vicki Oakes about whether the city would rezone the proposed quarry site when (not if) it was annexed.

Since passing an interim ordinance late last winter, the Ortonville Township Board of Supervisors has moved to create their own planning and zoning committee and to develop their own land use plan in order to preserve and protect the quality of life of their approximately 100 residents. I have been a witness to several of township’s board and planning committee meetings, and I can tell you that these people are incredibly dedicated public servants who have embarked on a very steep learning curve in order to do right by their residents.

The State of Minnesota provides for townships and other municipalities to exercise this right of local control through passage of an interim ordinance precisely because larger governing bodies do not always respect the will of the people in smaller ones. Clearly, this was the case when the Big Stone County Board of Commissioners moved to approve the Strata Corp. conditional use permit for an aggregate quarry in Ortonville Township despite the objection of the majority of its residents and despite the county’s lack of jurisdiction once the interim ordinance was passed.

Signs protesting the approval of Strata Corp’s CUP at a public hearing late last winter.

And, despite the legal right of the township to take control of its own land use planning, Ms. Oakes, formerly Big Stone County Planning Commission chair, has publicly ridiculed the township’s process, spread false rumors about its intentions and effects, and has continued to push the quarry project and the interests of one non-resident landowner (who happens to be one of the wealthiest citizens of Big Stone County) over the rights of the many residents of the township.

It is frankly amazing how much information Ms. Oakes can convey considering her presence at only one of these township meetings–one at which no planning committee business took place. Is spreading rumor and innuendo and ridiculing the process of local governments an appropriate role of a paid employee of the City of Ortonville?

Now, in defiance of the township’s role and right to preserve and protect the health, safety, property values, and quality of life of its residents, Ms. Oakes, landowner Gayle Hedge, and Strata Corporation are pushing the City of Ortonville to annex township land and push forward the quarry project against the will of the majority of the families who actually live there.

Is this the kind of place we want to live? Where a bigger government bullies the smaller one, and residents have no say about the community they want to live in?

Unfortunately, townships have few legal rights when it comes to annexation by a neighboring city. The process that Ortonville Township has embarked upon to protect and serve their people could be for naught unless the people of both Ortonville City and Ortonville Township stand up and make their voices heard.

Plan to attend Monday night’s meeting, and contact Ortonville City Council members to tell them to preserve the rights of Ortonville Township residents by rejecting annexation of the Hedge property.

Ortonville City Council:

Mayor David Dinnel 839-6226
Mel Reinke 839-3084
Mike Dorry 839-3048
Angela Doren 763-202-3487
Ron Thomas 839-3039
Robert Meyer 839-2364
Steve Berkner 839-3914