The public calls for caution with the frac sand mining issue

By Clay Schuldt

The Caledonia Argus

 

The May 7 Houston County Board meeting once again began with public calls for caution in the handling the frac sand issue.

During the public comments section of the meeting, Mike Fields of Winnebago Township encouraged the Board of Commissioners to consider banning frac sand mining altogether, saying, “There’s no right way to do the wrong thing.” Fields believed there was a legal precedence for banning mining, citing a recent decision in a New York appellate court that unanimously upheld two lower court decisions that allowed municipalities the right to ban fracking within its borders. Fields also believed industrial scale frac sand mining would violate Houston County’s 1998 Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

Steve Hardwick of Moneycreek Township urged the commissioners to utilize expertise in drafting frac sand ordinances. Hardwick wanted professionals in various fields to determine potential risks of water contamination and air pollution. Hardwick warned that those who deny science and logic are capable of anything and expertise in the drafting ordinances was a safeguard for the county against those looking only to make a profit.

Kelly Stanage followed up Hardwick’s comments by stating that during her work with the study committee she attempted to bring facts backed up by research and evidence that had been frequently trivialized and ridiculed by other members of the study committee. Stanage applauded the commissioners for taking up the duty of writing the ordinances in light of the committee’s gridlock, rather than delegating the task to a committee.

Stanage expressed her concern in moving forward saying, “Throughout the past year, there has been no consideration of a vision for the future of this county. What do we want it to look like in five or 10 years?” Stanage pointed to a tendency in the county to adapt to change, and frac sand mining poses a new and different challenge that required new approaches. Stanage presented the board with the preamble to the Houston County ordinance, highlighting principles that would be threatened by inadequate frac mining regulations, such as promoting and protecting health and safety, preservation of agricultural land, conserving the scenic beauty of the county, conserving natural resources and preventing pollution.

Later in the meeting Commissioner Justin Zmyewski informed the rest of the board that Attorney Jay Squires would be in contact with the county within the week in regard to new frac sand legislation coming from the state. In addition, the state has given counties the option of further extending moratoriums for an additional two years if deemed necessary. Prior to this change, Houston County’s moratorium was set to expire in March 2014 without an option of renewal.

Commissioner Judy Storlie advised that the county keep track of how much Squires is costing the county. Squires was brought in last year on the frac sand issue since Houston County’s regular Attorney Jamie Hammell recused herself due to a question of conflict of interest. Storlie was concerned that Squires’ rates could add up to a significant sum, comparing it to the justice center maintenance contract approved during the last meeting. Storlie suggested using county staff already on salary to handle as much of the research as possible.

Zmyewski believed much of the research could be conducted in-house, but Squires would still be needed for the legal aspect of the issue.

Zmyewski also addressed an issue involving a state provision that would create a mandatory setback for frac sand miles from trout streams, which the commissioners supported. Zmyewski had been in contact with Sen. Jeremy Miller and informed him that Houston County wanted a firm safe distance researched and established by the State rather than leave it as a free-for-all that allows counties to establish arbitrary numbers. Going back to comments made by Hardwick, the commissioners wanted fact-based regulations rather than opinions.

 

Pathfinder analysis 

of historical jail

Robert Vogel from Pathfinder Cultural Resource Management & Heritage Preservation Consultants spoke to the board in regard to the county’s old jail, which has been vacant since the opening of the new Justice Center. Pathfinder specializes in historical architecture and has an office located in Houston County. Vogel agreed to help by providing a pro-bono cultural resource management study of the jail.

While conducting the study, Vogel expressed surprise to find that the old jail had never come in contact with any federal government review, which was unheard of by his firm.

“You’ve never used any federal money on the jail at least since 1966,” Vogel explained.

Overall, the jail was found to be structurally sound and in a good state of preservation.

“It’s over engineered from a modern perspective,” Vogel said. “You’d never build a building like this in 2013, but it will also stand for another 500 to 600 years.”

Vogel recommended a sustained effort be made to find a compatible use for the jail building that requires minimal alternation of its architectural features. An adaptive reuse study needs to be conducted to develop a new use for the building.

Zmyewski asked if the county would be on the hook if a reuse study was performed and all options were too expensive. Vogel explained that the county would not be required to go forward with any of the options and it was the purpose of a reuse study to identify the best option, which included the cost. The reuse study would include multiple scenarios for jail projects and would include the cost of implementing each.

“The best bet would be to find some other governmental entity that needs that space,” Vogel said. “Another governmental entity would be your best partner.” In Vogel’s opinion, the worst thing that can happen to the building would be to leave it vacant, saying, “As soon as you start mothballing buildings, it’s an invitation for bad things to happen.”

Vogel agreed to put together a proposal for how to proceed with the jail, including seeking possible grant funding. The board tabled the issue for the next meeting.

 

Highway

The board approved a state-aid project for paving on County State-Aid Highway 4 and County Road 249. Mathy Construction was the only a bidder at a price of $2,657,448.

A chloride bid was awarded with the board’s approval to Freeborn County Co-op. The chloride is for use on gravel roads in the county. The cost of the chloride is 84 cents per gallon. Currently Houston County applies chloride to most of the high-traffic county roads, however the township roads do have a say in whether to apply chloride. If the townships request the chloride, they are asked to contribute to the cost.

The commissioners passed a resolution authorizing an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the Mississippi River trail, which provides for sign installation and other associated construction along the county roadways.

 

Personnel

The board approved a series of temporary staffing requests. Three 67-day employees were hired for work during the summer months. Ryan Meiners was approved for the Highway Department, Samuel Kratt was approved as an assistant student surveyor and Joseph Tollefson was approved as a roster driver for Veterans Services.

Social worker Melissa Foth’s employee status was changed from probationary to regular.

The commissioners approved a state and federal grant for boat and water safety that will allow for summer boat patrol. These grants are approved by the board on an annual basis.

 

In other news

At a previous board meeting, the commissioners gave K Properties until April 30 to submit revised paperwork; however, K Properties did not meet the deadline and the EDA voted to terminate the tax abatement agreement.

Both Al Jacob and Joe McManimon were appointed to the water planning board to replace Norman Oseth.

The district meeting is 8 a.m. to noon Monday, June 10, in Wabasha. Commissioner Teresa Walter suggested this would be a great opportunity to discuss on going human service issues.

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