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Menahga City Council: School project is exempt from environmental review

At a special meeting Monday, the Menahga City Council determined that the school expansion is exempt from an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW).

The motion passed 4-1, with council member Dennis Komulainen opposed.

"Just to be clear, we're here for a very, very limited purpose," said Jeff Pederson, the city's attorney, in his opening remarks. "It's not about whether or not anybody was in favor of the school bond issue. It's not whether there are zoning issues or variance issues. The sole thing that we're dealing with today is whether or not a environmental assessment worksheet should be ordered related to the Menahga School project."

Menahga resident Rick Gibbs filed a petition to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board requesting an EAW on the new high school addition. The petition had 111 signatures, including school board member Jon Kangas.

In late February, the council approved a zoning variance request from the school district.

Because the petition was filed, the findings haven't been signed and the actual variance has been stayed, Pederson noted.

The Environmental Quality Board directed the Menahga City Council, as "Responsible Governing Unit" (RGU), to decide if there was a need for an EAW.

Requirements for EAWs are listed in Minnesota Administrative Rules, Chapter 4410.

Pederson directed the council to compare the school project with the "mandatory" and "exemption" categories in Chapter 4410. According to the Environmental Quality Board, if the project falls under any of these categories, an EAW is automatically required or prohibited, respectively.

Examples of mandatory EAWs were for nuclear fuels or waste, electric generating facilities, petroleum refineries, pipelines, paper processing mills, feedlots, etc.

"Routinely, it's large, industrial type projects or very large construction projects. My analysis is that none of those mandatory categories apply," Pederson said. "It's fairly easy for us to reach that conclusion."

Under "exemption" categories, Pederson pointed out "construction of a new or expansion of an existing institutional facility of less than the following thresholds, expressed in gross floor space." The City of Menahga is a fourth class city, therefore the threshold is 50,000 square feet.

Pederson calculated the gross floor space in two ways.

According to school district documents, the pre-construction gross floor space is 58,224 square feet and post-construction is 104,703 square feet. "So the floor space increase is 46,479 square feet," he said.

Pederson also looked at the total impervious increase of 49,708 square feet — from 150,336 square feet to 200,049 square feet.

"In both those circumstances, it appears to me that the expansion is less than 50,000," he said. "Because of that, it would appear this project is exempt from environmental review. When a project is exempt, we are prohibited from going any further in analysis."

Mayor Patrick Foss concurred that the project appears to be exempt.

Gibbs asked if the square footage includes expansion of the gym.

"It does," replied Steve Schilke of Obermiller Nelson Engineering, which prepared a stormwater discharge report for the city council.

Menahga resident Jensine Kurtti asked if the council had the option to prepare a "discretionary" EAW "to err on the side of caution."

"My understanding is it is not discretionary" based on the findings of fact, Pederson said.

Komulainen suggested sending the issue back to the city's planning commission.

The council is the RGU, Pederson reminded Komulainen. The planning commission does not have authority to make the decision.

Gibbs suggested the project was not exempt because it qualifies as "construction of a new parking facility for less than 100 vehicles if the facility is not located in a shoreland area." The school has parking and is within the shoreland district, he reasoned.

Pederson reiterated the project is already exempt under the aforementioned category.

Council member Tim Ellingson inquired if the city was prohibited to take action for past noncompliance. "Can we request a study?," he asked.

"Those are different things. If you're concerned about past violation of a variance or current violation of a zoning ordinance, there are remedies to that with respect to our zoning ordinance. The zoning ordinance has enforcement provisions," Pederson said. "You can't order an EAW because of an alleged past violation."

Council member Maxine McNeece made the motion that, based on the evidence, the school project was exempt. Council member Craig Lawrey seconded.

City-owned grocery store?

Concerned about Chuck's Country Foods being up for sale, Foss and City Administrator Janette Bower contacted different grocery chains that might be interested in purchasing it.

"We have an awful lot of people who rely on the grocery store for food," Foss said, particularly elderly people.

Ellingson proposed that the city buy it.

"My thought is, it is essential. If possible, I'd like the city to consider purchasing and running that business if they can't find a buyer," he said.

"I really highly question that is the role of city government to run that," McNeece said. "If we set a precedent like that, then we're rescuing every business in town."

Foss said he could think of a dozen businesses that would ask for the same treatment.

Ellingson argued that the city already owns a business: a municipal liquor store.

Foss said that's the only business that the state allows small cities to own. Profits from the liquor store help offset local taxes, he added.

Komulainen noted there is another grocery store in downtown Menahga. "We're going to run against them?" he asked.

Ellingson said the liquor store competes with the American Legion.

"We are the only liquor store," Bower replied.

"Semantics," Ellingson said.

Foss said Chuck's Country Foods intends to close if unsold by fall.

Ellingson argued that the city deems it an essential business, "yet won't do anything about it."

Lifeguards for city beach

Foss said he favored having lifeguards, citing it as a city responsibility.

"To me, it's an important part of us providing that facility. We are responsible for it. We own it. Because of that, we are responsible for any safety to the individuals that are there," he said.

Bower said the positions were approved in the 2018 budget and are currently being advertised.

Ellingson, on the other hand, questioned the training and supervision of the city's lifeguards, saying he has witnessed them chatting and texting rather than surveying the beach area.

"It's a lot of money for basically for free daycare for people who send their kids down there. We can apply that money a lot more effectively elsewhere," he said.

He also questioned the lifeguards' handling of a drowning in July 2016, suggesting they should have taken a boat out to rescue the man instead of calling the police. He wondered why the council placed the lifeguards on paid administrative leave for the remainder of that summer.

Bower said the lifeguards responded appropriately when Rach Mani Carlson, 54, of Menahga attempted to swim toward a raft while apparently intoxicated. He refused to get out of the water.

Lifeguards called police and immediately rescued Carlson when he went under. They began CPR until the ambulance arrived. Carlson was airlifted to Essentia Health in Fargo, where, later in the day, he was pronounced deceased.

Crisis counseling was provided for police, first responders, fire department, county, state and the lifeguards, Bower stated. "It was a traumatic event for those kids. Keep in mind: They're 16 years old."

"Are we going to stipulate trauma pay then when this happens again?" Ellingson asked.

Foss said that would depend upon the circumstances.

Komulainen said, "I feel definitely we've got to have lifeguards."

If behavior is the concern, McNeece said, address it in personnel policy.

Utilities Supervisor Frank Thelin said lifeguards receive a checklist and give him detailed reports.

Ellingson suggested a brightly painted, designated area so lifeguards are easy to find at the city beach.

No action was taken.

Snow removal

Ellingson also expressed concern about Spirit Lake Lumber placing its snow in the city beach parking lot, suggesting that the salt and sand runs off into Spirit Lake.

The city has offered industrial park for snow, he continued, and "should not allow one business, out of convenience, to potentially contaminate the lake. To me, it's playing favorites."

Foss said he spoke with the owner, who stated that, years ago, the city council agreed to let Spirit Lake Lumber push snow into the parking lot because his freight arrived before city employees cleared streets.

"I don't think it's creating as big a problem as you think it is," Lawrey told Ellingson.

Foss suggested finding the original council decision, then addressing snow removal for all Menahga businesses. For instance, the Catholic church, he said, and others, are pushing a large amount of snow and blocking views of intersections.

Ellingson disagreed, saying that the Shell gas station is the culprit.

Procedurally, Bower agreed that the council directive should be located. It stands until it is changed, she said.

Thelin approached the council, expressing confusion about his role "in this world of policies and ordinances." He said, without naming names, that he feels "micromanaged by certain people."

Bower advised council members to bring any issues or concerns to her first, then she will speak with department heads.