Sand mine controversy continues in Houston County

Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

A bitter feud between several neighbors of a Houston County sand mine and the owners and operator of the business came before county commissioners on Tuesday, April 25. At stake is the operating permit for the Erickson mine in Yucatan Township.

The county board was required to address the matter after District Court Judge Carmaine Sturino ruled that the county’s Board of Adjustment had erred in finding a mining road to be in “legal non-conforming use.” That access road was closer to a property line than the 50 foot setback ordinance allows. But neither side won entirely. Sturino also ruled that the BOA’s interpretation of the county’s screening ordinance (another point of contention) was reasonable.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit to overturn the BOA ruling were Rosemary Iverson, Cory and Jackie Baker, and Susan and Bryan Van Gorp. They were present at the county board’s public hearing, as were mine owners Tracie and Michelle Erickson and Michael Kruckow of Bonanza Grain/Kruckow Rock Products.

The mine was originally permitted in 1992. The current owners purchased the land in 2012.

Land use attorney Jay Squires had represented the county in district court. He was met again by the plaintiff’s attorney, Bruce Nelson.

Squires said that the board could let the mine’s conditional use permit continue as-is, revoke it, or suspend the document. Fines are not currently included in the applicable ordinance, he added. Squires also stated that over 100 pages of alleged violations were cited by the plaintiffs, but were not found to have merit by the court. The only issue remaining to be settled was the roadway, he told commissioners.

“As soon as we got the court’s order, we moved the road,” Kruckow reported. “The closest the road comes to the Baker property is (now) at 75 feet. The reason the road is located where it is, is that we didn’t want to cut down any screening.”

“The problem I have with where we’re at is – the road’s moved so everything is fine now,” board chair Jack Miller said. “The fact that the road was there in violation for a period of time was really the fault of the county. But that doesn’t mean that the aggrieved parties are supposed to just shrug now. It’s probably a poor analogy, but if somebody slits my arm, and then they stitch it for me, so they say ‘It’s stitched now so everything is fine.’

“No it isn’t. I didn’t want a scar on my arm. I didn’t want blood on my rug. So it’s not fine.’”

Tracie Erickson later took exception to that analogy. “This problem was the county’s problem,” he said. A later analogy comparing the violation to a burglary was also offensive, the owner added. Erickson also reinterated Squires’ statement that the hearing needed to focus only on the access road.

“I don’t entirely agree with Mr. Squires’ assessment,” Nelson said. “One thing you need to understand is, the issue before you is not whether or not the road – at this point – is in compliance with the ordinance. The issue is what to do about this violation of the conditional use permit?”

In spite of the judge’s order, mining continued at the site, Nelson stated. He also said that a 2014 county review of the CUP (which found no violations) was “clearly a mistake.”

Nelson suggested that the old CUP should be terminated, and a new permit applied for. “Here’s the benefit to everybody in this process,” he added. “By submitting an application for a new CUP, you’re going to get some answers to the questions you’re asking. At the site visit, you (commissioners) had some questions about the mine, and the property owners said ‘No, we don’t have to tell you that. We’re talking about a road.’”

Squires asked the board for a consensus of opinion so that county staff could draft findings of fact in support of their decision. But commissioners were not ready to decide.

“There’s been a black cloud hanging over this permit,” commissioner Justin Zmyewski stated. “Boundaries have been pushed.” He made a motion to revoke the CUP, which died for lack of a second.

A motion by commissioner Teresa Walter to leave the CUP in place then failed by a 3-2 vote, agreed to by commissioner Scott Connor, but not by Miller, Zmyewski, or commissioner Fred Arnold.

Arnold asked for staff to prepare alternative findings of fact so that members could study the matter on their own and decide what to do at a later meeting. That motion passed 4-1, with Walter voting “no.”