By Jordan Gerard

Editor, The Caledonia Argus

In a show of opposition and caution to the proposed Off-Highway Vehicle trail in Houston, about 50 residents attended the regular council meeting on April 12. 

Some residents sported large, white buttons that had a red circle and line through the words “Houston OHV Park,” while others voiced concerns to the council about a trail that has been in the works for 12 years, due to its grant-in-aid status. Several people mentioned they’d like to see the trail, but not at its currently proposed location on the South Park bluffs.

Concerns like noise and environmental impacts of installing a trail on a bluffside close to town were raised once more, but new concerns were voiced too. Perhaps the biggest of all was an accusation that came against council member Tony Schultz for having a conflict of interest while serving on the council and OHV advisory committee. 

Resident Anna Bendacited MN State Statutes 43A.38, subdivision 5, paragraph 1 and 10A.07, subdivision 2. The first details conflicts of interests with employees of the executive branch and paragraph one states, “use or attempted use of the employee’s official position to secure benefits, privileges, exemptions or advantages for the employee or the employee’s immediate family or an organization with which the employee is associated which are different from those available to the general public;...” 

The second statute appears to refer to public officials and gives guidelines on how to assign conflicts of interest to other employees. However, council members are elected, not hired. Chapter 43A also refers to state employment.

The League of Minnesota Cities cites in its publication, “Elected Officials and Council Structure and Role,” that “Public officers are generally prohibited from having a personal, financial interest in any sale, lease or contract they are authorized to make in their official capacity.” 

It refers to state statute 471.87 that states, “a public officer who is authorized to take part in any manner in making any sale, lease, or contract in official capacity shall not voluntarily have a personal financial interest in that sale, lease, or contract or personally benefit financially therefrom...” That statute does refer to local government officials.

Schultz’s mother, Marlene, granted access to a perpetual easement over her land in order to allow the city to “develop, operate, and maintain a parking area and trail access,” according to Houston County property records. There was not a price tag attached to the easement document nor stated in the council minutes on April 10, 2017, when the easement was granted. 

City Administrator Michelle Quinn clarified the process began in November 2016, and Schultz did abstain from action related to the easement. When it was approved on April 10, 2017, he was not a council member. 

As for looking into the accusations, Mayor Dave Olson said that would be “what the council will have to do next.” The council was also asked to improve communications by perhaps putting information on the city’s water/sewer bills. However, it would have to be brief because the character count on the document is limited, Quinn mentioned. She also said she was not sure of what type of information would be beneficial to disseminate in this manner, as there is much to read through and consider. There’s also liability concerns depending on the type of information.  

Quinn also mentioned the city did not have the October 2012 petition on file because they were not required to keep records like that after five years. 

Audience members also called on council members to make a vote at the meeting regarding the future of the trail or any further actions on it, but since a vote was not posted on the agenda, they could not make that vote since it would violate the Open Meeting Law. 

International Owl Center Executive Director Karla Bloem thanked the council for scheduling another noise study this spring, and said the methodology of the study is really important. 

The council granted her or “someone with an alternative interest” permission to be present at the noise study by OHV Acoustics LLC to ensure methodology would be followed. 

She also asked if the public could be notified when the noise study would take place because there was a lot of speculation about the noise. OHV Acoustics LLC will use a minimum of eight OHVs on the trail at one time to measure the noise. The OHVs used for testing must pass the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ J1287 test before it is considered a test vehicle. Every OHV must pass that test before it is allowed on a trail. 

Schultz asked if that would be a true measure of noise, because people would be deliberately listening for the noise. 

“Is it really a truthful subject if you are listening for what you want to hear versus what you actually hear?” he asked. The council did not say aye or nay to that request.

The council also granted Bloem permission to conduct an acoustic monitoring study that will determine how much wildlife will be impacted. She will put out sound monitors near the trail area before, during and after the noise study. 

Bloem also reminded the council of how much the International Owl Center impacted the city. In 2019, the center had 12,619 in-person visitors and a gross income over $325,000. During the pandemic, the center had 6,673 in-person visitors and a gross income over $320,000. Funds are split into wages (all employees live in Houston), $170,000 to purchase two properties, $21,086 in rent and utilities and $6,920 in property taxes. 

Furthermore, Barista’s Coffee House has an extra staff person working when the center is open, visitors frequent JT’s for lunch and Loken’s Sawmill Inn and most of the Rushford Inn are full during the International Festival of Owls, with some visitors staying there during Owl Prowl evenings. 

Bloem also mentioned Houston is situated in a natural ampitheater, resulting in sounds from the hillside are projected across town. She added she could hear a chainsaw near the area while she was at the Owl Center on Main Street.

She also expressed concern for the timber rattlesnake habitat on the hillside. With more activity on the hillside, the snakes are likely to come into town, she said and cited three experts. The way to keep the snakes on the bluff was to maintain their habitat.

Winona State University professor Russ Smith, who teaches marketing and tourism, said economic impact on small communities with ideas for an event or an attraction does not happen the way they would like because the community does not have businesses or facilities to capture that money. 

An economic impact study for the trail has not been done to Quinn’s knowledge. Previous studies have been done related to the “Economic Impact of Various Types of Recreational Trails Across Minnesota,” but not specific to Houston. 

“The community has to have developed the businesses and infrastructure that absorbs that money,” he said. “By far, the biggest problem with community development and tourism and economic development is a community that is not on the same page.”

He added the community as a whole has to be supportive, businesses have to be there to capture the money and the muncipality should be providing incentives for entrepreneurs to absorb the money. 

“The biggest economic impact is when the community gets tourists who are compatible,” he said. “If you have two different groups who don’t get along with each other, you lose both.”

In total, about 20 residents spoke up at the meeting. The council listened carefully and responded when necessary. Schultz addressed other concerns and said the city and its taxpayers will not pay anything to the trail, as the funds come from Minnesota’s gas tax and are then turned over to the city. The advisory committee meetings have also ceased due to waiting for the government to catch up. He also said the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been present at the advisory meetings. 

Council member Cheryl Sanden said she appreciates people coming and addressing concerns. Cody Mathers said everyone wants what they view as best for Houston and that the council was well-intentioned. Emily Krage thanked everyone for coming and she appreciated the phone calls she received on the topic. 

Public information documents are still available on the DNR’s website at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/input/mgmtplans/ohv/plans/houston-ohv-trail.html. Previous stories on this topic by the Argus are available on our website at www.hometownargus.com. Alternatively, paper copies may be requested by contacting our office at 507-724-3475.

Editor’s note: This story is part three of a longer series on the proposed Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) trail in Houston. Stay tuned for more information.

This has been updated from its print version.

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