County board rules on sand mine

Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

By a 3-2 margin, Houston County commissioners voted to leave a contentious conditional use permit in place on May 23. That’s when the board decided that a setback violation at the Erickson sand mine in Yucatan Township will not require the owners and operators to procure a new CUP.

“We’ve gathered a lot of information, both from the (April 25) public hearing and since,” Commissioner Teresa Walter said. “We need to focus on the non-compliance road issue for a decision. So I’m going to make a motion not to revoke the conditional use permit based on the findings of fact of option one, and (since) the road violation is now compliant.

“The district court found only the road violation to be considered.”

Seconded by Commissioner Scott Connor, that motion was opposed by chairman Jack Miller and Commissioner Justin Zmyewski. Commissioner Fred Arnold cast the swing vote. After the public hearing on the matter, he previously asked staff to prepare findings of fact (options one and two) to support the board in either leaving the CUP alone or revoking the document.

Miller said that the violation should have sank the CUP, comparing activity at the mine to cheating in sports. For example, if a baseball team has gone 14-0 a won a championship, the squad could celebrate with a well-deserved trophy, the chairman noted. But if that team was later found to have used an ineligible player, “Your record now is 0-14, and we’ll take the trophy back, and you can start over next year,” Miller stated.

“I have a letter here from our lawyer… (from) May of 2013, outlining four very definitive reasons why the CUP should not have been approved,” Miller added. “A former zoning administrator went ahead (and approved a subsequent review) anyhow.”

Since then, the mine owners have been able to operate, but “The people who have complained, from everything I have seen, the main thrust was to enforce the ordinance,” Miller said. “Throughout that time, the zoning administrator, seven Planning Commission members, and three Board of Adjustment members couldn’t determine that the road was in violation? It’s unfathomable… It was a concerted effort to not fix it, orchestrated – unfortunately – by our county.”

A new access road that adheres to current setbacks has reportedly now been built at the site, but the long and bitter feud between neighbors over that issue and others has left both sides smarting.

“I know there’s a lot of history involved,” Arnold said. “But I also understand that we are, as a board, are a legal entity. And we have an obligation to the taxpayers at large to pay attention to that, and pay attention to the fact that we represent all the taxpayers…

“I know this debate has become very contentious. I have been yelled at, screamed at, sworn at, lied to, lied about, and several other things that I won’t enumerate.  I also had some very good discussions with people on both sides… What I’m hearing our attorneys say is that the most legally defensible option at this point would be Teresa’s motion.

Personnel ballots, other votes

Commissioners voted to hire Olivia Niday as probationary emergency management director (a half-time position) contingent upon the successful completion of a background check. The resignation of GIS coordinator Daniel Krzoska (effective June 9) was accepted, with thanks for nearly 19 years of service. And, the June 2 resignation of home health aide Diane Giese  was also accepted with thanks for her service to the county. Samuel Stemper was re-hired as a temporary summer helper at the Houston County Surveyor’s Office.

The board decided to review just how the GIS coordinator position should fit among county departments before advertising for a replacement. But a competitive search to replace a retired maintenance foreman in the Highway Department was approved. Commissioners also approved  a new job description (highway maintenance specialist senior) that will add part-time “lead” duties (and a 60 cent per hour raise) to one of the department’s highway maintenance specialists at a later date.

The board approved an offer from low-bidder Zenke Inc. to replace a bridge in La Crescent Township for $230,127, which is 16% less than the engineer’s estimate. A bridge replacement on Rooster Valley Road (Black Hammer Township) went to Van Gundy Excavating. That $98,653 offer was considerably less than the $167,530 estimate. Another ballot approved the plat for the reconstruction of a culvert on CSAH 27 about one mile south of Spring Grove. That job will replace a 60 inch metal tube with a larger box culvert to keep floodwater from over topping the roadway.