BY MONICA LUNDQUIST
Cass County Correspondent
All the seats in the Cass County board room were filled Tuesday morning as the commissioners received comments on proposed changes to county zoning ordinances.
The board voted on several issues, the most significant of which would delete changes proposed to tighten gravel pits rules in the county. This followed opposing comments from gravel pit operators and those who wrote new rules.
The planning commission and a citizen committee have spent the last two years preparing changes they saw as a response to citizen complaints about noise, hours of operation, gravel truck traffic and reclamation of closed pits.
Tuesday’s board action would reverse those proposed ordinance changes, not require all pits to register with the county or require a reclamation financial assurance deposit of $1,500 per acre if topsoil is available onsite of $7,500 per acre if topsoil would have to be brought in from another site.
Current zoning requires a conditional use permit for any new pit. The planning commission could require as a condition a reclamation deposit or set operation hours or specify noise levels or limit truck hauling as has been done in the past.
Whether to use the existing ordinance terms or to adopt what had been new, stricter changes will depend upon a final board vote at the 9 a.m. Jan. 8 regular board meeting at the courthouse in Walker.
Tuesday, Bill Herheim, Lott Excavating owner, located between Hackensack and Longville, told the board, if the proposed changes are adopted, the financial assurance deposits, limiting operating hours (especially on weekends) and limiting the number of loads hauled would put smaller operators out of business.
He said tightened regulations are the result of problems with one or two operators. Problems with those operators should not affect all operators in the county, he said.
Further, if smaller pits close, it will raise the cost to the county as well as private citizens, because pit operators will have to haul longer distances to construction sites.
Mark Ruyak of Remer also objected to the high cost of the proposed rules. Business people already are facing higher state and federal taxes. Having to register pits with the county would only lead to a future county fee per registration, he predicted.
After hearing comments from two of the citizens who sat on the committee to write the proposed gravel pit ordinance changes, Ruyak said it was evident to him that the changes were written by gravel pit haters. He also objected to a suggestion that the changes might only be applied to new pits.
“If you pass these rules, all the small businesses will be forced out, leaving you with only the big guys who are causing the problems,” Dave Felton of Longville said.
Butch Peterson of Peterson Excavating asked the board who will have time to enforce all the regulations.
Dennis King, who served on the citizen committee to write the rules changes, said the committee used as a guide rules already being used in neighboring counties. He said the reclamation deposit would be changed only to new pit operations.
He also said the requirement to register pits was included only so the county would identify which pits are existing and which ones are new. New ones would be subject to tighter regulation. Registration also could help people buying properties be aware of pit locations before they buy their land or house.
Jim Ballenthin, who has served on the planning commission during the time the proposed changes have been written, said planning officials have seen an increase in conflicts between pit operations and residential neighbors.
He supported pit registration, with existing pits to continue to operate as they have, but to require tighter regulation on new pits.
Susan Sundberg, a northern Cass planning commission member, supported having differing regulations, depending upon the size of operation. She also noted the planning commission has the power to grant variances even if the rules do become tighter. She noted two variances given this year to pit operators under existing zoning laws.
In making the motion to delete proposed changes to the zoning ordinance gravel pit section, Commissioner Jeff Peterson said he thinks more work needs to be done before the board can adopt any changes.
Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk said he thinks the present method of setting conditions for gravel pits through a conditional use permit works well without tightening the rules for all pits. Financial assurance already exists for reclamation, he said.
Cash Luck, who described herself as a 45-year resident of the county, chastised the board and zoning officers for failing to enforce existing zoning laws.
“I don’t want to be the lake rat,” she said, adding, “Enforce. Enforce. Enforce.”
She maintained she has watched people remove expanses of cedar trees on her lake, then replace them with expanses of rock riprap when the shore washed out – all this despite the fact the county’s existing ordinance limits clear cutting along lake shoreline.
Fines don’t do any good she said, noting offenders she has seen can afford to pay the fines to do what they want. Restoration, instead, should be required, she emphasized.
Bob Sipes, who said he is closing out his resort on Leech Lake, told the board zoning has destroyed the value of his property. There is too much zoning of all kinds in his view. He qualified that by saying he does not oppose all zoning.
He also objected to the fact the county has been requiring native plants to be used in shoreline restoration projects.
“This isn’t the Boundary Waters or Alaska or Siberia,” he said. He called planting brush around a house a fire hazard in the event the area might be hit by forest fires. He also contended his wetlands have dried up while he has lived here, partially because he was not allowed to dredge them.
In addition to the proposal to let existing rules stand for gravel pits, the board Tuesday approved the concept of requiring both sides of a property line fences to be of equal quality, changing the term “urban growth” to “municipal growth”, standardizing the setback from any platted or public road (regardless of ownership) to 20 feet and taking out a section of the resort portion of the ordinance that would have required resorts to provide the county with business financial documents to prove that they are a resort business catering to transient clientele rather than a high density residential complex for permanent residents.
If the board Jan. 8 adopts changes to the existing Land Use Ordinance, Environmental Definitions Ordinance and the Subdivision Ordinance, those changes would take effect 30 days after legal publication.