Houston County seeks advice on mine expansion

Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

Houston County commissioners voted to try out a new system last week – one that will allow the county to hire outside firms to evaluate certain permit applications and bill the cost of that service back to the proposers.

“We have a draft EAW (Environmental Assessment Worksheet) that’s been submitted for a proposed expansion of the Winnebago Quarry,” zoning administrator Aaron Lacher told the board. “This is for Bruening Rock/Skyline Materials.”

The company is seeking a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for a mine that has so far operated without one, having been grandfathered as a “non conforming quarry,” he noted.

“They (the mining company) have compiled the EAW using their own internal staff,” Lacher reported. “Houston County will be the responsible government unit to review the EAW and to assure that it’s prepared in an adequate way…”

So in order to do that, Lacher and environmental services director Rick Frank proposed hiring a third party to assist with the review process.

“The point of the EAW would be to identify the things which should be considered from an environmental standpoint,” Lacher added.

“The mine has been there for quite some time,” Frank said. “There have been some problems down there that have been rectified, and some that we’re looking at.”

“This EAW is being taken voluntarily by the proposer,” Lacher reported. “There’s a threshold based on acreage that triggers mandatory EAWs. We haven’t hit one of those thresholds. When you’re underneath that threshold, the EAW is undertaken in one of two ways. The first one we see here is a voluntary process. The second one is that as the RGU, the county can require an EAW, really at any acreage threshold.

“We’d be hiring our own expert,” county attorney Samuel Jandt told the board.

Commissioners voted to seek quotes from companies qualified to provide environmental review services.

Hiring and appointments back on the table

The board spent a considerable amount of time debating how they should appoint persons to powerful and influential panels such as the Board of Adjustment and Planning Commission (and how many people should serve on those bodies), as well as how top jobs such as department heads are awarded. The issue was far from settled, but personnel/facilities director Tess Arrick-Kruger was asked to look into some specific things. First, to consult with Jandt on ways to allow the full board to act as a search committee, and secondly, how that could conflict with open meeting laws and private data practice statutes.

“We can debate this,” board chair Jack Miller said. “But I think one of the keys is that we need to exercise extreme care in who we’re giving that responsibility to. You can read into that whatever you like, but I think that’s our responsibility and I don’t think it’s been exercised in the past real well.

Other votes:

Commissioners also adopted an updated five-year hazard mitigation plan. “This has been about a year and a half process, and  it’s been finalized, reviewed and approved by the Department of  Homeland Security and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency),” emergency manager Kurt Kuhlers said.

The board decided to reduce, but not eliminate a late delivery fine which the county will impose on it’s salt supplier. The full amount under the contract would have been $31,370, but commissioners voted to only charge $12,500.

Commissioners also voted to request a speed zone study from the Minnesota Commissioner of Transportation. The work will take place on CSAH 2 from the intersection of State Highway 76 to a point about a mile to the east. County engineer Brian Pogodzinski said that a new senior housing facility has been constructed east of the City of Eitzen, prompting the action. “They’ve been asking for this for a couple of years,” he said. The work will probably take from three to 12 months, and will not be free of charge, Pogodzinski noted. The study will probably cost from $1,200 to $1,500.

The board accepted the resignation of maintenance specialist Nathan Rask, and approved a search that could utilize a pool of applicants from several months ago. Arrick-Kruger was asked to bring back a hiring recommendation.

A public hearing on updating the bylaws of the Houston County EDA was convened, but the board learned that the EDA’s enabling resolution will also need to be updated at the same time. The holdup was over language which states how many persons will serve. By consensus, the board decided that two commissioners and five volunteers will sit on the EDA, since finding seven residents to join can be difficult.