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.

Annexation–Without the Mess!

In order to make Strata Corporation’s plan to blast and crush the outcrops along the headwaters of the Minnesota River as smooth and painless as possible, the Planning Commission of the City of Ortonville is holding a public hearing October 15th to give lip service to the idea of democracy.

The idea here is to change the zoning rules following annexation of that proposed quarry site, so that the City won’t have to go through yet another messy public participation process to change the zoning on the piece of land they’re planning to steal (legally, of course!) from Ortonville Township in order to allow Strata to make a bunch of money and destroy local residents’ quality of life.

If you think this looks like a poor excuse for government “by the people and for the people,” I’d like to personally invite you to attend the hearing on Monday, October 15th at three o’ clock in the afternoon (I’m sure they didn’t mean to pick such an inconvenient time!) to let the commission know what you think.

After this meeting, rumor has it that there will be a special meeting of the Ortonville City Council at 5pm to consider…er, most likely just pass the duly recommended change in language.

And, you can come to that meeting, too! Both should be excellent and educational examples of your local government at work.

Be there, or quit complainin’ about the government. Democracy is not a spectator sport.



People Power vs. Corporate Power: Keep the Teeth in Minnesota’s Interim Ordinance

In Big Stone County, where I live, a proposed aggregate quarry by a North Dakota-based corporation has united local residents around protecting the ancient granite outcrops that gave the county its name.

Strata Corp. applied for a conditional use permit at the county level just before Christmas, and though Strata’s own planning process has been six years in the making, citizen input was limited until the Planning & Zoning Commission’s initial public hearing on January 5th.

The room was packed with citizens who were reeling from what seemed to them like an incredibly fast process where there were many more questions than answers. Most residents had no idea the project was in the works until community members staged a grassroots organizing effort to take outreach into their own hands–writing letters to the commissioners and local papers, having one-on-one conversations with other residents, and collecting signatures on petitions in opposition to the project.

While the county’s permitting process continues despite growing opposition to the quarry from residents across the county and region, the Ortonville Township Board took action to protect residents in and around the proposed quarry site by passing an interim ordinance to place a moratorium on the project and to develop their own planning and zoning commission.

Education and action on potentially harmful developments is going on across the state–in southeastern Minnesota, counties have enacted interim ordinances to check the rapid expansion of frac sand mining, which is changing the face of the landscape and destroying productive agricultural land.

But legislation moving through the Minnesota House and Senate would diminish the power of local governments to protect their citizens and communities.

House File 389 and Senate File 270 weaken township, county and city local control. The proposals weaken the power of local governments to enact interim ordinances (also called moratoriums). An interim ordinance allows local governments to quickly put a temporary freeze on major development. This power is essential when the community is caught off-guard by unanticipated and potentially harmful proposals, especially those from corporate interests and outside investors, such as frac sand mines, big box stores like Wal-Mart or a large-scale factory farm. This bill favors corporate control over local control. [Action Alert: Legislation Weakening Local Control Moving Forward at State Capitol. Land Stewardship Project. 24 Feb 2012.]

Some have tried to frame this issue as a fight between liberals and conservatives or between pro-development and environmentalist factions. But the faces at public hearings have belied those characterizations–this is a fight for community that brings together citizens from all walks of life and all political perspectives.

The real fight is for local control in the face of corporate greed–about the right of citizens to determine what’s best for their communities through a democratic process vs. a desire by corporations to weaken that power and steamroll that process.

At the root of the debate is an age-old tension between the rights of business and the rights of neighbors within the unwieldy democratic process. Proponents of the new law, primarily Twin Cities builders, say developers who have spent tens of thousands of dollars planning a project deserve to have those investments protected from politically arbitrary decisions by government officials.

“It happens regularly,” said James Vagle, public policy director for the Building Association of the Twin Cities, which has been trying to get the law through the Legislature for several years. “We were following all the rules … and a project gets stymied.” [Marcotty, Josephine. “Should locals have the power to stall controversial projects?” Star Tribune. 21 Feb 2012.]

A developer’s complaint that they spent many years and dollars in the planning process and were “following all the rules” only to be  “stymied” by “politically arbitrary decisions” sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Except that “following all the rules” isn’t a pass to do whatever you want, especially when local governments are also following all the rules to ensure citizens have a say in the development of their community.

To suggest that because a corporation dots its i’s and crosses its t’s, it should get to build, mine, and blast whatever it wants wherever it wants flies in the face of our democracy. To suggest that a community whose citizens come together across socioeconomic and party lines to halt an undesirable project and begin a lengthy and complex process of planning for the future is “arbitrary” in any way shows ignorance of the democratic process at best–contempt at worst.

Instead of “playing by the rules,” corporations are trying to change the rules–to take the teeth out of local control via the interim ordinance and make it virtually impossible for smaller units of government and the citizens they represent to exercise their right to determine what kind of community they live in and how their resources are used.

What you can do to protect local democracy and your community:

Contact your legislators in St. Paul and tell them to vote against House File 389 and Senate File 270. Then, contact Governor Dayton’s office to tell him you’ve spoken with your elected officials about this legislation, and ask for a veto should it reach his desk.

To learn more about the fight for people power vs. corporate power at the state capitol, to find out who has supported this democracy-weakening legislation, and to find contact information for your legislators, see Land Stewardship Project’s latest Action Alert on the subject, or contact LSP’s Bobby King: or 612-722-6377.


The Power to Retain Local Control in the Face of Corporate Development is in Your Hands

In 2011, corporate interests attempted to weaken township and community rights in Minnesota. Land Stewardship Project helped block that attempt, but corporations are at it again this year.

By law, township, city, or county governments can pass interim ordinances to place a moratorium on large development projects in order to give citizens and communities more time to study their impacts. The ordinances must pass by a simple majority, and they are one of the best ways communities have to put a hold on projects–like factory farms, mines, and housing subdivisions–that may have taken them by surprise.

Often, corporations plan developments far in advance, but lack of communication and disclosure leads to citizens being “blindsided” by a large development until it’s late in the game. The interim ordinance gives citizens–through their city councils, county commissions, and township boards–a powerful tool to say, “hold on a minute!”

Unfortunately, House File 389 and Senate File 270–legislation that would weaken the power of local control–are now making their way through both houses of the Minnesota legislature.

Under the proposed legislation, merely applying for a permit exempts a proposed development from any future interim ordinance. But all too often neighbors do not get any information about a project until AFTER the permit has been applied for. When that happens, an interim ordinance may be needed to freeze the status quo and create time to assess the situation.

The legislation requires a two-thirds vote (a super majority) to enact an interim ordinance. Currently, an interim ordinance can be enacted by a simple majority — that’s how democratic rights should work. There is no reason to make adopting an interim ordinance so difficult. The legislation slows the process for enacting an interim ordinance by mandating public notice and a hearing before an interim ordinance can be enacted. In many cases, a local unit of government — particularly a township — does not get complete information on a proposed development until shortly before approval. In those cases, there can be legitimate concerns that the local government needs to address. [“Keep Local Democracy Strong in Minnesota.” Land Stewardship Project. 1/25/12]

House file 389 is scheduled to be heard TOMORROW, 1/26/12 at 10:15am.  Protect your right to exercise local control over corporate development by calling your state representatives right away!

For more information on the bills and how to contact your legislators, and to read Land Stewardship Project’s press release on the legislation, click here. You can also call or e-mail LSP’s Bobbi King: or (612) 722-6377.

Vermillion to hold "Citizens Academy"

The City of Vermillion will be holding a “Citizens Academy” in the months of February and March to provide residents over the age of eighteen with “a  free, hands-on, interactive public information program that allows citizens an insight into City services and the functions of City departments.”

The purpose of the Citizens Academy is to familiarize citizens in the community with the City of Vermillion’s government. The program will include the function of City departments, explain the relationship between the City Council, Planning Commission and City Administration, allow an overview of the budgetary process and it will provide an outlet for citizen input.

The program sounds great for those interested in running for public office who don’t fully understand how the whole thing works, as well as folks who just want basic knowledge about the workings of their fair city.  The sessions include city government and finance, water, landfill and recycling, emergency services, streets, and more.

“Graduates” of the academy will receive a “Governmentology” certificate and a key to the city–no more breaking and entering! The sessions start at 5pm and run for two Tuesday evenings in February and three Tuesdays and a Monday in March.

Click here for the City news bulletin (scroll down the page to “Citizens Academy”) and/or contact Evie Johnson at 677-7159 or for more information.