Safety concerns prompt board to allow digging
Excavation will resume on a Hubbard County hillside after the county commission gave its blessing Wednesday to the unauthorized dig, despite the strenuous objection of environmentalists.
The board, voting 4-1 Wednesday, cited safety concerns at the rural intersection of county roads 50 and 7 as the reason for allowing additional removal of materials on the hill. Further grading will afford a better sight line into oncoming traffic, maintained county engineer Dave Olsonawski.
The hilly curved intersection, known informally as the "Zorbaz corner" after the pizzeria just below the site, has been the subject of controversy since early last month when a bridge contractor began leveling the terrain without a conditional use permit to stockpile the dirt for grade work.
Representatives from Central Specialties, Inc., appeared before the board with a reclamation plan and pledged to landscape the terrain to the county's satisfaction as soon as the excavation is completed.
"In hindsight we shoulda got a permit," said Central Specialties superintendent Al Minnerath. But he urged the county board to look forward, not back, enabling the company to get the landscaping done and established before winter sets in.
Minnerath said the slope of the hillside, without additional removal, would be too steep to allow any vegetation to grow; grass seed would simply wash down the hillside, possibly into the surrounding lakes.
In sanctioning more material removal, the county board overruled part of a decision last week by the Hubbard County Planning Commission, which advised granting the permit, but without the contractor removing more fill.
Minnerath said about 7,000 cubic yards have been removed thus far; 4,000 more yards would be necessary to grade the slopes leading to the County Road 7 bridge under construction - and slope the hillside the materials came from.
Last week company representative Sue Vieregge had estimated 6,000 cubic yards of fill had been removed.
"By and large we follow the rules," Vieregge said. "We missed this one and we're sorry."
The Alexandria-based contractor has completed numerous projects in the area, including the Highway 34 project and the recently-paved Highway 71 stretch between Park Rapids and Menahga.
Vieregge said the company chose the site because it was adjacent to the bridge; heavy trucks hauling sand and gravel would not wear down county highways if other gravel pits further away had been used.
The company didn't realize the hillside fell within the county's strict shoreland ordinances, she said.
"You seem like a nice lady, but if you stand at the top of the hill, what do you see?" asked commissioner Don Carlson, who was the lone vote in opposition to granting the permit. The site is surrounded by three lakes.
"They know the rules," an angry Dan Kittilson said. "They exploited this for their gain and you are letting them do it," he accused the board.
Kittilson, a Little Sand Lake resident and president of the Coalition of Lake Associations, wants procedures in place to penalize the illegal removal and prevent it from happening again. He also wants to be part of the restoration oversight.
"I don't get it," Kittilson said after the vote. "We have rules. We have ordinances. They knew the rules."
Little Sand Lake resident Rod Westrum said he has been taking water clarity measurements in the lake since the bridgework began and it has deteriorated significantly.
Vieregge maintained a vegetative buffer strip has prevented erosion of the sandy hillside into the adjoining lakes. Commissioners, in granting the permit, said there was no proof leveling the hillside has "detrimentally affected" the lakes.
"That intersection has always been a bad intersection. This will make it more visible," commissioner Cal Johannsen said.
Board chair Lyle Robinson said it would be unwise to order the contractor to put the hill back.
"We don't want to get into a situation where we put it back so you can't see the road," he said. "It would get us in court if we create something you can't see around."
But some audience members urged the county to adopt stiffer penalties for after-the-fact violations. At most, besides the reclamation costs, Central Specialties may only face a $250 fine.
"That doesn't mean a hill of beans," said lakeshore resident Joan Smith. "You should raise that fine to an exorbitant amount. It should be $250,000. That would have some meat to it."
"You don't want to create a system where multimillionaires can come up and buy their way" out of the county's permitting requirements, Robinson cautioned.
Carlson took the loss hard. He complained the contractor was simply making excuses for its illegal behavior and that both the Planning Commission and county board manipulated the findings of fact required to grant the permit.
"Are we a nation of laws?" he asked.
No one answered.