Guest Post by Rebecca Terk
Big Stone Bounty
This post is republished by permission of the author; Part 1 and Part 2 originally appeared on Big Stone Bounty, a blog about "Local Food, Community, & Local Democracy in the Big Stone Lake Region of Minnesota."
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 Sorensen 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.
Despite clear opposition to the quarry project from the township and a sizable portion of the county as a whole, Big Stone County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve Strata’s Conditional Use Permit at their May 1, 2012 meeting. However, due to the township’s interim ordinance (which suspended the county’s jurisdictional authority), the project still couldn’t move forward.
Re-entering the scene, former County Planning and Zoning Chair and Ortonville EDA Director Vicki Oakes began working with proposed quarry site landowner Gayle Hedge, along with Strata and the City of Ortonville to devise a new plan to push the project through.
Oakes also waged a campaign of righteousness and ridicule against quarry opponents, Ortonville Township supervisors, citizens, and those “outsiders” who helped them on her blog, Quarry Talk. The blog has since been removed from the web, but her August 5, 2012 post entitled, “New Township Zoning–The Future!” is quoted and discussed here.
Hedge subdivided among family members the 500-or-so acre proposed quarry site, which abutted the city boundary, into 6 separate very interestingly-shaped parcels, each with a small portion abutting the city, and each of the new owners petitioned the city for annexation.
Annexations by ordinance of 120 acres per owner per year of property that abuts the city boundary are allowed by the state of Minnesota. Anything more than that requires the city to negotiate with the township in whose borders the land falls. Due to the clearly-expressed sentiments of township residents, bringing the township to the negotiating table didn’t seem a likely way to make the project happen, hence the subdivision.
And, while an interim ordinance can protect a township from development pushed by the county, it cannot protect them from a land-grab by an adjoining city. Once land is annexed into the city, it is no longer within the township’s jurisdiction, even if township-controlled land still surrounds the annexed parcel(s) almost entirely.
The city had recently amended their zoning rules to immediately place annexed land into the same land use category as the land it abuts–an obvious attempt to circumvent a later public hearing addressing a change of zoning on annexed parcels specifically for the Strata project.
After all, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to do zoning-by-abutment if, for instance, you’re annexing land abutting an industrial area that is destined for a golf course or housing development, or if you’re annexing land that abuts two different zoning districts. But, clearly the goal here wasn’t to make sense, it was to pave the smoothest way for Strata’s quarry project to move forward.
The rules at that October 15, 2012 City Planning & Zoning Commission hearing were as follows: 1) We’re here to discuss the rule change, and 2) We’re not here to discuss the quarry project. Those asking why the rule was being changed were referred to Rule #2. More discussion of that hearing is available here, but needless to say, the rule change passed easily.
On October 25th, the Ortonville Township Board of Supervisors hosted their own listening session and public information meeting at the New Life Baptist Church in Ortonville. The meeting was designed for members of the public to learn more about the proposed project, to ask questions, and to have better understanding of the process, as well as the township’s stance.
The meeting was attended by those on both sides of the issue as well as those who didn’t have a “side,” though at one point then-mayoral candidate Steve Berkner hijacked the mike and attempted to make himself palatable to all city voters in the room by describing to what lengths the city would go to prove that the project was safe and how it would not affect property values of the nearby residents (not many lengths, it turned out).
Then came the November 5th, 2012 public hearing on the city’s proposed annexation of the subdivided parcel–the date of which neatly coincided with the date provided in Strata’s step-by-step guide to the annexation by ordinance process, provided to then-Mayor David Dinnel and the Ortonville City Council at Vicki Oakes’ request–documents available here.
The public input process at this hearing was severely curtailed by city planning and zoning commissioners, who must’ve thought the “see no quarry, hear no quarry, speak no quarry” rule at the October 15th zoning rules change hearing made fast-track approval of Strata’s project a lot less stressful. YouTube video of that hearing, and of the public’s verbal gymnastics to avoid saying “quarry” in their testimony, is available here.
Shortly thereafter, the Ortonville City Council had their first and second readings of the annexation ordinances, and passed them all after the second reading. Everything was zipping right along according to Strata’s timeline when the township filed its objections to the annexations by ordinance (ABOs) with the State Municipal Boundaries Adjustment Unit (MBAU).
At that point, the MBAU looked at the situation more closely, and found that Gayle Hedge was still a beneficial owner of all of the parcels (having retained rights to profit from sales of aggregate on all parcels) and 5 out of 6 of the ABOs were rejected by an administrative law judge. The city and petitioners appealed that ruling, and it ended up in district court.
In the spring of this year, District 12A State Representative Andrew Falk introduced HF 1425, which would address this troubling loophole in state annexation law by imposing a moratorium of five years before subdivided parcels could be annexed by ordinance.
The bill did not interfere with the ability of local governments to use orderly annexation (the preferred method, since all parties have a voice at the table), but it was tabled in the House Government Operations Committee on May 2nd due to its arrival late in the session and strong opposition from the League of MN Cities and Coalition of Greater MN Cities, who basically claimed that the bill would create some sort of development Holocaust in the state.
I was at that hearing (and at a follow-up in St. Cloud earlier this week), and found it somewhat amusing to hear representatives from those organizations on the one hand acting very chastened about the whole situation in Ortonville and agreeing that it was a no-good-very-bad way to go about things, and promising to help figure out how to keep it from happening again, while on the other hand fighting like heck to make sure that their member cities would indeed have the opportunity to do it again now that this exciting new loophole had been discovered for annexing large tracts of land from townships without townships having any say in the matter.
Indeed, one might question the commitment of Coalition of Greater MN Cities to chastising wayward Ortonville and their spirit-of-law circumventing ways when, later this summer, they celebrated Ortonville Mayor Steve Berkner’s participation in the attempt to kill Falk’s bill with an Excellence in Service Award.
I find the quote about Berkner’s advocacy having stopped the bill from moving forward misleading at best: in fact, it was the process Berkner took part in as a council member, and then presided over as mayor that prompted this legislation in the first place, and it was the timing of the bill (late in the session) that prompted the most concern from legislators. You can hear the committee proceedings for yourself here–scroll down to Thursday, May 2nd.
(The bill isn’t dead, by the way. The Government Operations Committee is still waiting to hear more substantively from the above-mentioned organizations, who are charged with negotiating with the MN Association of Townships to come up with some kind of consensus on how to close this loophole and/or address what were termed by committee members as abuses–yes, that’s right, abuses of the annexation process like that perpetrated in Ortonville.)
So, with the annexation decision of five out of the six parcels still in court (actually the parties have recently asked the judge not to rule) and potential state legislation that could remedy Ortonville Township’s plight, why would the township board do a deal for orderly annexation now?
Well, you have to go back to that 120 acres per owner per year law. You see, the City has already successfully annexed one parcel for Strata’s project–and that parcel is the core of the quarry footprint. Next year, the city can simply annex another one or two of the parcels (so long as they don’t go over the 120 acres rule–since Hedge is still deemed to be a beneficial owner of all of the parcels). In another year, another one or two parcels, and pretty soon the city and Strata have got it all anyhow.
And what does the township get in this scenario? Not a blessed thing.
On the other hand, orderly annexation, as you’ll recall, requires that all parties come to the table. And that gives the township the opportunity to get something instead of nothing.
And what of the legislation? These things move slowly, and as much as township residents might hope some remedy can be made, they are also cognizant of the oft-repeated mantra of those committee hearings: “Nothing can be done to help the situation in Ortonville now. The best we can do is to avoid similar abuses in the future.”
So, the choice for Ortonville Township is a losing one either way. They could have fought to the bitter end, which would more than likely have been bitter indeed, with nothing to show for their years of work and expense, or they could do a deal and get something. In organizing, we call that a strategic loss. It sucks; it ain’t what we wanted, but it ain’t nothing.
That is not to say there is no more role for citizen input, protest, and potentially even legal challenges from adjacent landowners, but the township board has fended this thing off as well and as long as they could. I’ve certainly seen their dedication in this nearly two years’ fight, and the idea that this is a happy resolution of all those past differences with Strata and Bill LaFond rings about as false as it comes.
There’s plenty more to this story, both in the documentation and in the stories from county residents who fought this fight. I want to give special thanks to Sally Jo Sorenson at Bluestem Prairie (and Big Stone Bolder)–many of the documents, stories, and testimony would never have been publicly available without her work.
Disclosure: Bluestem Prairie's publisher and editor Sally Jo Sorensen worked on contract providing social media services for Clean Up The River Environment's (CURE) Strata campaign from April through May 2012. Bluestem had gotten interested in the dispute during February and had posted about it prior to receiving the contract. Sorensen is currently working with the Stand For Food project. CURE is the fiscal partner for the broad coalition.
Photos: An early public hearing on the proposed Strata aggregate quarry project, at Clinton’s Memorial Building (above); signs outside a public hearing (middle); Screenshot of the Ortonville Independent (below).
If you enjoyed reading this post, consider giving a donation via snail mail (P.O. Box 108, Maynard MN 56260) or paypal: