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Fertilizer plant zoning request moves ahead

Scott McKay of CHS Prairie Lakes explains the company's plans for an agronomy facility to Todd County Zoning Administrator Bridget Chard.

The Todd Township Planning Commission voted Monday night to recommend that the town board reclassify a parcel near Park Rapids from agricultural to commercial zoning.

The decision followed a public hearing where neighboring property owners voiced concerns about plans by CHS Prairie Lakes to build a seed elevator and fertilizer plant at the site.

CHS currently operates a shop on Eighth Street East in Park Rapids. Scott McKay, agronomy division manager for the company, presented CHS's plans to expand its local operations to what he called an agronomy facility outside town.

During its regular meeting prior to the hearing, the planning commission voted 3-0 in favor of an administrative split, separating the plot from a farm owned by Todd and Tracy Hughes. The decision, also 3-0, to recommend rezoning came after an additional motion passed 3-0 to approve the reclassification criteria as determined by planning commissioners Dean Klicker, Glen Breitweser, and Ron Jensen.

The property is located at the southwest corner of County Road 48 and 129th Avenue, approximately three miles northwest of Park Rapids. Adjacent to the east is an approximately five-acre parcel already zoned commercial. An additional commercial property, Leading Edge Mechanical, lies across the road to the east. The remaining 10 acres of the farm on the west side of the split will remain zoned for agriculture.

The parcel lies approximately 2,500 to 3,000 feet from both Portage Lake and Fishhook Lake.

The commissioners and Zoning Administrator Bridget Chard said the proposed facility would meet the goals of the township comprehensive plan, including regulating scattered and fragmented commercial uses, supporting living wage opportunities, and identifying types of suitable commercial growth.

The planning commission said concerns about the plant's compatibility with the uses of adjacent land, wastewater treatment issues, traffic patterns, and effects on water and air quality and neighboring property values would likely be mitigated by the conditional use permit (CUP), when the project reaches that stage.

Public comment

During the public comment portion of the planning hearing, Joyce Weiss, a neighbor to the southeast, said she is concerned about her property value going down.

Cliff Branham, a neighbor to the south, said the CHS plant is "a burr under a lot of people's saddle out there." Referring to an incident last summer that led CHS to fire its local manager and do cleanup, Branham said the company has not given its new neighbors a good first impression.

Though he said he has used the company's fertilizer business, Branham urged the commission to leave the property zoned agricultural.

Marilyn Branham said she is concerned about groundwater quality. She said she and other neighbors were called liars last summer when they complained to CHS about equipment being improperly washed and leaving residue on their property.

Larry Fleisher, who lives on Portage Lake, said the presence of a facility so close to Portage Lake, which feeds into Fishhook Lake, presents an increased opportunity for accidents and spills that may affect the water quality of the whole Park Rapids area.

Fleisher said there are already issues with nitrate levels in local wells. McKay replied the facility is designed to contain contaminants.

Robert Tolbert, who lives on Portage Lake, said phosphorus levels in the central U.S. are having drastic effects on the ecosystem. He is against anything being built close to the water that could involve spills and accidents.

"We have not yet got a good way of handling our excess phosphorus," he said. "One of the best things we can do is keeping it away from our fresh water."

Tolbert warned about carcinogenic heavy metals, including cadmium, chromium, arsenic, lead, and mercury, which have been known to be released in small amounts by fertilizer plants.

McKay replied the company's fertilizer products are regularly tested, and "you would have to test in parts per billion to find what you're talking about."

Tolbert said lake associations spend thousands of dollars every year to control invasive weeds and maintain water quality. He said phosphorus from agricultural runoff promotes algal blooms, causing water quality to go down.

Resident Mike Davies said he thinks the facility's septic system is too close to Portage and Fishhook lakes.

"I've worked my whole life to buy this place I've got up north, in the woods," he said. "I certainly didn't expect a plant to be built in my backyard."

McKay said the plant's septic system will only be used to provide restroom facilities for approximately 10 to 12 employees. In reply to a comment about a creek that runs close to the side of the property where the septic system was shown on the company's plans, McKay said CHS was open to reconsidering where the septic system will be located on the property.

Chard said the septic system permit is a matter for Hubbard County Environmental Services.

Davies said CHS' current Park Rapids location, next to the fire station, would be a better place for a fire hazard like a fertilizer plant.

"Something goes up in flames out there, it will be through the woods and take my house out before the fire department can even get there," he said.

Ray Locke voiced skepticism about the containment system McKay described for the plant's equipment-washing facility. McKay said the wastewater would be drained into 250-gallon tanks, tested, and eventually sprayed on a field with corresponding nutritional needs.

Asked what would happen if the building floods, McKay described the building as "fully diked" to hold up to 120 percent of the volume of liquid expected to be contained there.

Locke, who has lived northwest of the proposed plant since 1982, recalled not being able to see one foot down in Portage Lake due to algae. "That lake has improved drastically in 35 years, to where you can see down six, eight, ten feet now in August, September ... I don't believe we should run the risk of ruining what we've gained in the last 35 years."

Locke added, "Yes, you may have all the protections, all the berms, but as you had all the protections and the berms last summer, you had to fire a manager because he screwed up. It's too late at that point."

Asked whether CHS would have ammonia on its premises, McKay said, "No ammonia is planned for this facility." He added that ammonia facilities are slowly disappearing across the state, and CHS never has nor plans to handle any explosive product, like the ammonium nitrate that caused a Texas fertilizer storage facility to explode in 2013.

Locke said CHS should consider a site less close to water, such as a 14-acre property for sale off Highway 34. McKay said the company considered that location, but since it is in an airport zone, it has height restrictions that conflict with a seed elevator.

Branham asked Chard whether an environmental impact study has been conducted. Chard said such a study is not mandatory for a project this size, but it can be requested through a process that requires documentation of the reason for the request.

Brian Jergensen of Glenwood, chairman of CHS' District 3 producer board, said the company is a leader in developing environmentally responsible "precision farming" practices. "We put on what it takes to raise a crop," he said. "We don't throw extra fertilizer on the ground because it's expensive. Prairie Lakes Co-op has been one of the leaders in the state of Minnesota, if not the leader in Minnesota."

Klicker pointed out CHS's town location is closer to water (a few blocks from the Fishhook River) than the proposed facility.

David Collins, executive director of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission, suggested more fertilizer may be spread on the property as a farm than will get into the soil around the proposed plant.

McKay agreed, noting, "The way we spread fertilizer has changed from 10, 20 years ago, where we spread equal amounts the whole field. Now we see the different soil types...We really try and do a great job of spreading for the nutrients that the crop needs going forward. But we're moving this from agricultural purposes...You'd probably end up with a lesser chance of water contamination (with this plant) than under an agricultural situation, depending on who farmed this in the future."

Deb Nicholson, who lives south of the Weiss and Branham families, said, "We all live in that area because of the quality of life that it gives us. I think that is going to change for all of us. It's especially going to change for them. When our property values decrease because of this, are they going to buy us out? What's going to happen? ... We don't have a lot of value, and I feel like we're going to lose the value that it has. It's what we've got. It's all we've got."

Chard said the Todd Township board will take up the planning commission's recommendation at its Feb. 12 meeting. It will be up to the board to decide whether to hold another public hearing about the matter.

The commission's recommendation, approved at the end of the meeting, calls for reclassification of the property for commercial use for a retail agricultural facility. This reclassification is contingent on CHS obtaining administrative subdivision work and a driveway permit from Hubbard County, providing the township a copy of its well test, and making substantial progress on the work within six months unless an extension is requested of the township board.

The next Todd Township Planning Commission meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 26 in the lower level of the Hubbard County Social Services office, with one or two public hearings to follow at 7 p.m.

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