By Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

A Houston County mining dispute is threatening to balloon into a state-wide court battle.

On October 22, county commissioners voted 4-1 to spend up to $4500 to hire land-use attorney Jay Squires to “augment zoning staff” at a court-mandated Board of Adjustment remand hearing.

The dispute began after Houston County zoning officials took a look at the Schutz rock quarry in Winnebago Township (which had been deemed “open and usable” by county staff in 2008), as part of a  review of some “local nonconforming” mines in 2017 and early 2018. At that point, the county decided that the mine did not meet the requirements needed to retain it’s local nonconforming status, and must cease operations. The problem, staff reported, was that investigations revealed that the quarry was not in continual use from 1967 to 2005. 

Prospector Kruckow Companies, LLC; Bonanza Grain, Inc. appealed the zoning department’s decision to the Board of Adjustment, which heard the matter on June 21, 2018. The appellants requested that two of the five BOA members not be allowed to participate in that hearing, but separate votes to exclude members Bryan Van Gorp and Larry Hafner were deadlocked (2-2), and both participated by default. After a review of the evidence, the BOA supported the county’s position by a 4-1 vote.

The case was then appealed to the Third District Court, where judge Carmaine Sturino ruled that the BOA must re-hear the case since one member should have disqualified himself. Sturino ordered that Van Gorp will not participate in the remand due to “strong indications,” that he “prejudged the issue of nonconforming use as it relates to the Schutz quarry.” The judge also ordered that two other BOA members that the plaintiff sought to disqualify from the re-hearing (Larry Hafner and Ken Visger) will be allowed to participate.  

On October 22, county attorney Samuel Jandt asked the county board to hire Squires, since he could not properly serve “in the dual role” of advising what amounts to two potentially opposing sides (the BOA and Houston County Planning/Zoning Department). Jandt also hinted that if the zoning decision is overturned by the BOA, the county would most likely appeal, “Because there’s a lot of issues here that are undetermined by case law here in Minnesota.”

If the county’s decision is overturned and the board does not decide to appeal, the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust would likely “Appeal this, even over our objection, because there are impacts here that could be state-wide,” Jandt added. 

The request to hire Squires was granted with a lone “no” vote from Commissioner Eric Johnson. The remand hearing is currently scheduled for November 21, 2019.

Other news:

Zoning administrator Aaron Lacher reported that a comprehensive land use survey is now on the county’s webpage at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/CompPlan2020. Information gathered from the questionnaire will help committee members who are working on an update of the Houston County Comprehensive Plan. The survey can be filled out online until December 1, and paper copies of the document are available in the Environmental Services Office (at the historic courthouse) and at local libraries.

Commissioners approved a revision to the resolution to accept sealed bids for the sale of 22.16 acres of land near Caledonia Middle/High School. The resolution now includes a 1.198 acre easement for public transportation. Commissioner Bob Burns urged the board to retain the easement prior to the sale, adding that buying an easement for “a bike path, turn lane or both” after the land is sold would probably be more expensive. 

Several personnel items were approved with a single “consent agenda” vote. The upcoming retirement of Public Health fiscal officer Loretta Lillegraven in January, 2020 was on the list, with thanks for her 23 years of service. A competitive search for an account clerk to fill the opening was accepted as well, along with the lateral reassignment of social worker Andrea Onstad, and a competitive search to fill that vacancy. Tyler Fabian was reinstated as a probationary jailer/dispatcher, and a vote from the “action items” agenda approved the addition of a technical clerk in the Assessor’s Office, returning that department to 2011 staffing levels.

A Wetland Conservation Act exception for Northern Natural Gas was approved. That work includes the removal of existing equipment on Skunk Hollow Road if new equipment is allowed to be located at Lancer Blvd. in the City of La Crescent. Last week’s vote did not approve the latter project, however. 

Final payments for several completed 2019 roadwork projects were also approved, including pavement marking, maintenance rock, crack filling, and seal coating.

Paul Fruechte was reappointed to the Crooked Creek Watershed Board (a three-year term).

Fraud investigator Nate Barker, who works for the Wabasha County Sheriff’s Department, reported on  his efforts during the 2018/19 fiscal year (July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019). Barker works in five counties, including Houston, where he looked into 18 cases. Those investigations originated with referrals from Houston County Human Services. Barker reported $41,207 in dollars saved/overpayments in Houston County related to those 18 investigations. Region-wide, Barker reported 182 cases, and savings that totaled $461,641. The investigator said that additional grant dollars may expand the program.

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