The Houston County Board of Commissioners, on a split vote last week, passed a request to expand a zoning permit for Bonanza Grain Co. Inc, but not before a number of county residents let their thoughts on the issue be known.
The July 2 meeting was filled to near capacity, with residents waiting to hear the board’s ruling. The new permit for expansion was required because Bonanza, near Caledonia, was believed to have exceeded the original permit limits. In addition, recent claims of damage caused by blasting had been reported by neighbors of the quarry.
Prior to a planning and zoning committee meeting June 18, the committee toured the mine, as well as homes that reported damage. The blasting company, Bennett Explosives, kept a record of all eight blasts conducted at the site, and seismographic data recorded that all blasts were within the regulated limit; however no data was available near the homes reporting damage, and the committee was unsure if the damage was caused by blasting.
A motion at that meeting was made to permit Bonanza for another six months and allow for one blast, and set a seismograph at two additional properties to allow for comparison. In the event the blast was not in conformity, Bonanza would have six months to remove production from the quarry.
After conducting the blast, another public hearing would take place to allow the committee to review the findings. At the end of six months, Bonanza will need to file for a new permit application.
At last week’s commissioners meeting, it was left up to the commission to approve the planning board’s recommendation. Several Houston County residents spoke during the meeting against approving a new six-month permit, not only because of the possible damage caused to local property, but because Bonanza had violated the previous permit in expanding mining operations beyond its limits.
Drew Ferguson of Money Creek Township said the committee was in clear violation of its own ordinances, and she questioned how it could hope to enforce a future frac sand ordinance.
“Why are there ordinances at all if they are not being enforced?” she said. “This undermined public faith in public officials and opens our county to liability.”
Mike Fields of Winnebago Township said he was not surprised that Bonanza violated its permit, adding that with no real enforcement of the ordinance, it is common place for companies to violate zoning permits. Fields compared the situation to roadways where speed limits are not enforced.
“Mines and feed lots have come to expect little to no consequences for violating ordinances,” he said.
Kelly Stanage asked for turnover in the planning commission, zoning administration and environmental services, as the departments had a developed a practice of not enforcing ordinances.
“I think it is really important that you folks get a handle on how we’ve been operating, evaluate what is the right way to operate and begin to put in place some changes that will enhance, or at least reclaim, some of the lost trust the public has in the governance of this county,” she said.
Allen Meyer of Caledonia was the only person to speak on behalf of Bonanza. He said if Bonanza does not get an additional six-month permit, it would make things difficult for farmers and construction companies to acquire necessary materials.
Later in the meeting, zoning director Bob Scanlan summarized the findings of the planning committee and pointed out that blasting records indicated the company had not exceeded federal limits.
In order to address some issues, another review was scheduled for six months after the expiration of the new permit. Seismographs would be set up in two additional locations near the homes reporting damage. All residents within half a mile of the mine would be alerted prior to the next blast.
Chairman Justin Zmyewski asked Scanlan how far beyond the permitted boundary Bonanza had gone. Scanlan could not say with certainty, as that information was based on aerial photographs indicating the mine had passed the original permit. He said a survey would need to be done.
“In this instance, if they went outside the prescribed boundary, do you feel it would be appropriate to have due process to find out if they were in violation?” Zmyewski asked.
“Today they are not mining outside of their described area,” Scanlan responded.
Zmyewski asked the question because it was previously said that Bonanza had mined outside the permitted area. Scanlan clarified that once the company was notified of its encroachment, the mining operation was brought back into that permitted area.
As for the blasting issue, the two seismographs used during previous blasting were ruled to be insufficient by the planning committee and determined Bonanza needed to install four seismographs to better measure shockwaves in all directions. County ordinances say blasting must be conducted 1,000 feet from a residence. Scanlan was not sure whether a federal guideline existed but believed it was an arbitrary setback.
Commissioner Steve Schuldt cited past blasting he had witnessed in which the shockwaves were minimized within a residential area and was confident Bonanza and Bennett could conduct precision blasts. He seconded a motion by Commissioner Judy Storlie to approve the six-month permit extension. It was approved by a 3-2 vote, with Zmyewski and Commissioner Dana Kjome voting against. Kjome also serves as the board representative on the planning committee and voted against its recommendation.
“I don’t think it is the county’s business to say they can blast again, and say ‘Let’s see if this damages the house,’” he said.
He was concerned that in the event homes were damaged by the blasting, the county could be held liable. Scanlan, though, said if the data proves the blasting caused damage to homes, it would be the mining company’s responsibility to cover damage costs.
After approval, the board added extra conditions. The recommendation of four seismographs was increased to six. The cost of additional seismographs would be paid by the mining company.
“I would hate to have them come back and say we didn’t have enough,” Zmyewski said. “Let’s take the opportunity to really find out what is going on.”
Highway engineer Brian Pogodzinski and emergency manager Kurt Kuhlers updated the board on conditions after recent flooding in parts of the county. As of the July 2 meeting, county roads 12 and 25 were closed indefinitely. County Road 10 was expected to be open before the end of the day.
Kuhlers said representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in the county July 9 to review recent flood damage. A resolution was approved requesting Gov. Mark Dayton petition the president to declare the county a major disaster area.
Kuhlers estimated the flood disaster resulted in $6.2 million worth of damage, with at least $2 million at the township level. He said in the event Houston County is declared a major disaster area, the assistance will be limited to public assistance, as the damage to homeowners was not high enough to warrant individual assistance from the government.
Root River Soil and Water district manager Ron Meiners gave an update on the flood damage and how it affects the public in the agricultural districts. According to Meiners, the numbers continue to pile up daily, and the saturation of the soil is causing more erosion and debris problems. He plans to seek funds to repair watershed resources and will submit letters to state officials in hopes of getting assistance for individual landowners.
In addition, Dave Breault from the city of Houston spoke about the city’s emergency planning. During the 2007 flood, the city used the Stone Church as the town evacuation point, which did not meet all its needs, so the city has been looking for a more suitable evacuation point even since
It was decided that the county shop at the junction of Minnesota Hwy. 76 and County 9 north of the city would serve the city better and would be less likely to be cut off from flood waters.
Commissioner Teresa Walter made the motion to allow the city of Houston to use the county building in an evacuation emergency, which passed unanimously.
In other news
Kjome suggested forming a committee to re-draft county zoning ordinances. One suggestion was to add term limits to the planning committee. Zmyewski said it would be nice to get new faces on the committee and that there were other interested parties.