Past digging on Little Sand Lake allowed after lengthy discussion

In an abrupt about-face Tuesday, the nine-member Hubbard County Planning Commission allowed a bridge contractor's illegal removal of hillside materials near Little Sand Lake after initially proposing to deny the after-the-fact request to shave of...

The hillside near the Hubbard County 7 bridge project is scarred. "It took years for the trees to grow and two days for it to be destroyed," wrote one opponent to the illegal excavation. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

In an abrupt about-face Tuesday, the nine-member Hubbard County Planning Commission allowed a bridge contractor's illegal removal of hillside materials near Little Sand Lake after initially proposing to deny the after-the-fact request to shave off the hillside for construction materials.

During a lengthy and often times chaotic meeting, the commission qualified the approval of a conditional use permit for obtaining the fill materials on the contractor not removing any more dirt and sand on County Road 7 near Zorbaz pizzeria. But the contractor will not have to replace what has already been removed for the bridge grade work.

Central Specialties, Inc., must recondition the area with native trees, shrubs and grasses as the site was before earth moving equipment dug into the hillside without a permit last month, the commission voted.

Company representative Sue Vieregge said the digging "was an oversight on our part. We did not connect this to the shoreland ordinance" that would have prohibited extracting the soil near the lakeshore and altering the terrain.

The commission's 6-2 vote is advisory only. The issue will go before the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners, which has final approval. County Commissioner Don Carlson, who sat on the Planning Commission Tuesday, staunchly opposed giving the permit, especially after the damage had been done.


"Dealing with today is hard enough," he said. "Dealing with yesterday is almost impossible."

The emotional issue attracted more than a dozen local residents, some of which left thinking the permit application had been denied. The commission switched horses when Vieregge implored members to allow the contractor to take remedial steps that would rectify the situation.

But part of the restoration plans of the hillside did not include planting trees, she admitted. The contractor agreed to add trees to the final landscaping.

Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf read 10 letters for and against the permit into the record.

Some residents said leveling the hill abated safety concerns at the intersections of County Roads 7 and 50 because the hilly terrain prevented full visibility for drivers pulling out onto the hilly highway from County Road 50.

Others were outraged that the county didn't exercise sufficient oversight to prevent the removal of 6,000 cubic yards of dirt, and said an investigation should be conducted to ensure it doesn't happen again. Fingers were pointed at Buitenwerf's office, the county board and county engineer.

Residents such as Diane Sorenson were among the former. She said she welcomed the landscape change.

"The remaining hill should be further mined for the project," she wrote, to produce a safer intersection.


Others were in the latter category. "This damage to the subject area is extremely ugly visually and opens a wide area that will be subject to erosion from rains and winter snow melt and runoff," Richard and Jean Soderberg wrote.

Property owner Scott Reche said he was unaware a permit was required. "I thought I was doing everybody a favor" for the bridgework by selling the fill at $1 per cubic yard, he said.

Opponents pointed out that a sand pit is less than two miles away and could have been used.

Vieregge said convenience was the reason the contractor used materials from the hillside just above the project. She said it was ultimately cheaper and prevented wear and tear on adjacent roads. The site near the bridge prevented trucks hauling heavy materials over county roads.

"We left a vegetative strip in the ditch to act as a buffer zone against erosion," she said.

Carlson wondered why the matter was before the Planning Commission at all when it was an after-the-fact violation. "Shouldn't this go to the Board of Adjustment?" he questioned.

Buitenwerf said "extractive use" permits were the purview of the Planning Commission. If Reche had wanted to contour the hillside on his own, he likely could have done that without a permit as long as the materials weren't used for extractive purposes, Buitenwerf said.

Newly-appointed member Sally Shearer said at one point, "I don't know the protocol here."


Buitenwerf patiently explained the group's mission more than once when members seemed to get sidetracked discussing penalties and conditions. Janet Thompson, the meeting recorder, also had to steer the group back on track, at one point saying, "We have several conversations going on here and I'm having trouble recording this." She gestured in the direction of both the audience and commission.

Central Specialties will buy fill elsewhere, Vieregge said, putting the delayed project back on track.

Resident Rod Westrum, who said, "I think my anger has subsided a bit," nevertheless urged the commission to enact a stiff penalty for a "spur of the moment" act. "These people know very well permits are required," he said.

Resident Vern Thompson worried that allowing the permit to be issued would "condone further illegal activity." He urged the commission to make the contractor post a performance bond for the permit to ensure future compliance.

"It's an open area now which is not ideal," Vieregge said. "Landscaping will enhance the property for him (Reche) and the viewing public."

The county board may take the recommendation or take a fresh look at the issue when it comes up next week.

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