Vicki Oakes, chair of the Big Stone County Planning and Zoning Commission, wasn’t happy with the 100 restless citizens seated in front of her at the board meeting on Thursday night in Clinton, Minnesota, population 449.
Upset by the possibility that beloved granite outcroppings in Ortonville Township might soon be blasted into aggregate for concrete, they’d organized, circulated a petition, written letters to the editors of local papers, and marched singing anti-mining tunes and carrying handmade pro-rock, pro-ball cactus signs to the Clinton Community Center.
Some weren’t respecting her authority, throwing out loud suggestions about what she could do with the conditional use permit (CUP) sought by Strata Corporation, a Grand Forks sand and gravel corporation running gravel pits across the upper Midwest.
Not that the suggestions that “You could just vote no” were profane or vulgar. Just out of order. But not too out of order, since sheriff’s deputies were on hand to keep the peace, and the motley crowd of cattle farmers, small business people, students, Dakota activists, Republicans, DFLers, writers, artists, and local food growers had parked their signs outside.
But Oakes, Community Development Coordinator for the City of Ortonville, was letting her temper flair during the informally managed meeting. When citizens clapped, booed or recorded proceedings on cell phones, she slapped them down.
Welcome to pitchforks and torches, Minnesota Western Boundary Waters Nice style.
The dominant model for protest–Tea Party or leftward–is the Alinsky model: pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. In Big Stone County, home to fewer than 5300 souls, this can be a bit awkward, especially when the argument isn’t about stopping development, but rather, what sort of development is best to keep Big Stone County from continuing to hemorrhage people as residents take off to Sioux Falls or the Cities.
One bet is the traditional extractive industry like gravel pits. The West Central Tribune’s Tom Cherveny reports in Quarry proposal opens mining debate on the edge of Minnesota’s western boundary waters:
The quarry would pay a projected $20,000 a year in aggregate taxes to Big Stone County and Ortonville Township annually. It is projected to create six to eight jobs.
That’s not a lot by metro terms, but on the western border away from any mini-metropolis, those jobs are hard to come by. The successful but aging farmer who seeks to lease his land to Strata Corporation frames the development in those terms.
Gayle Hedge shared his thoughts with writer Anne Queenan in emerging synergy for love of place?, a profile posted on her blog. Queenan writes:
Understanding Gayle’s story seems important as it has a pivotal impact on what the landscape will look like along the headwaters of the Minnesota River 130 years from now. It is a story filled with hard work, entrepreneurism, humor and a big love of life in a small town of western Minnesota. . . .
Hedge believes the county will benefit from the proposed quarries with six to eight new seasonal positions for Big Stone County and a combined tax revenue of approximately $26,000 a year. “Those employees will fill some of the many vacant houses available in Ortonville, ” Hedge said. In addition, he plans to set up a fund for the City of Ortonville through $50,000 received from Strata Corporation in exchange for the agreement to mine the land for the next 130 years.
In Big Stone County’s scale of things, that’s a generous endowment. Hedge is a respected member of his community who is looking to the longterm, 130 years into the future. Queenan’s article doesn’t spell out what entity will administer the fund (the City of Ortonville or a community foundation) but even quarry opponents appreciate the caring qesture.
Others suggest that the rock outcroppings–and the wildlife refuge and bike trail near them–have a more enduring economic value. Cherveny writes:
Lodging and hospitality industry revenues in 2010 in Big Stone County totaled $4.1 million, with tax revenues to all sources of $282,000, according to the Minnesota Department of Revenue.
The environmental harm — the loss of yet another endangered rock outcrop — and what mining operations ultimately means to the area is what brought Duane Ninneman to Clinton on Sunday. Blasting and crushing rock and loading trains are all certain to add silica and other dust to the air and cause noise pollution to the detriment of residents in the area, he explained.
A Big Stone County resident and consultant with Clean Up the River Environment, Ninneman has been helping residents opposed to the project. “Our concern is our residents and making sure their way of life is a good way of life,’’ said Ninneman.
For Vicki Oakes, the dilemma isn’t an abstraction, but a professional tension. In addition to serving as the Community Development Coordinator for the City of Ortonville, Oakes serves on the Western Prairie Waters Regional Tourism board.
Big Stone County resident Duane Ninneman also takes a long view, but sees things from a different perspective as a member of the Minnesota River revival movement. If it issued cards, he’d carry one, but the intentional community building that’s been going on among sustainable development advocates hasn’t gotten around to that part yet.
Instead, the movement members have built groups like CURE (Clean Up the River Environment), sustainability projects, the Meander art gallery crawl, eco-tourism and community building. While there’s oppositional organizing, as the case of the fight against the Big Stone II coal plant and the protest signs at the Clinton meeting, the folks along the Upper Minnesota River are more interested in teaching the art of hosting than selling the metrics of the Alinsky methods.
CURE Executive Director Patrick Moore, a mainstay on Montevideo’s Main Street, hands me a flyer for the Art of Hosting Training that the group is sponsoring in early May at the Prairie’s Edge Resort and Casino in Granite Falls. The Art of Hosting, the document tells me, attempts to heal the broken relationships between people.
In the conflict in Big Stone County, Moore seeks to stop the relentless march of the permit process so that citizens can hold the sort of “courageous conversations” that they need to have about what sort of communities they and their children should enjoy. A musician and river enthusiast, he peppers his conversations with notions of respect, compassion and dialogue for everyone.
Right now, he and his friends in Big Stone County are talking about the interim ordinance that the Ortonville Township Board of Supervisors passed to give residents time to talk about what they want for their community. MPR’s Mark Steil reports in Quarry plan faces more hurdles:
And there’s another potential roadblock for the project. The Ortonville Township Board has passed a moratorium on new projects like the proposed quarry. The township plans to set up its own planning and zoning commission which would have to approve Strata’s plans. Strata officials say they are reviewing the township action.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has consistently upheld the authority of townships to govern themselves and pass their own rules. It’s part of the tradition of local control in Minnesota, one that’s threatened by players far away from Big Stone County.
On Friday afternoon after the Clinton hearing, I receive a blast action alert from the Land Stewardship Project, which keeps a field office in Montevideo that promotes local food and sustainable, family-scale agriculture. Organizer Bobby King cuts to the chase about the threat to local control, specifically interim ordinances like that approved by the Ortonville Township board:
House File 389 will make it more difficult for citizens who want their township, county or city to take action and protect the community from unanticipated, harmful development. The bill weakens the power of local governments to enact interim ordinances (also called land use moratoriums). An interim ordinance allows local governments to quickly put a temporary freeze on major development. This power is essential when the community is caught off-guard by unanticipated and potentially harmful proposals, especially those from corporate interests and outside investors, such as big box stores like Wal-Mart or a large-scale factory farm. An interim ordinance freezes the status quo and gives the community time to review or create the appropriate zoning ordinances.
UPDATE: House File 389 was tabled at the Jan. 26 hearing in the House Government Operations and Elections Committee due to our phone calls and e-mails and strong testimony in opposition. Now new language for the bill is being proposed as a “compromise.” However, this new language still dramatically weakens local control and is NOT a compromise. Under this new proposal, after a project applies for a permit the local unit of government has a short window of time in which to enact an interim ordinance. If they miss that window, then the proposed project is exempt. The clock starts running before any public hearing — by the time there is a hearing, the clock could be run out. . .
In short, taking away one of the tools citizens in Big Stone County just implemented to stop the clock for a timeout and conversation. Gutting local control has long been a goal of developers and Big Ag, but with self-professed enemies of big government now in control of the state capitol, the odds for big government to neuter little government has never been higher.
Indeed, part of the rushed conversation about Strata in Big Stone County arises in that same paradox: thanks to a “reform” in the permitting process, Big Stone County has only 60 days to review a permit application under most circumstances, following recent reforms of the process.
Ortonville Township isn’t alone in the questions it’s taking time to ask about mining by enacting a moratorium.
Across the state in Southeastern Minnesota, Goodhue, Wabasha and Winona Counties have adopted interim ordinances to review the impact of silica sand (fracking sand) mining as the natural gas boom and attendent use of hydrologic fracking to abstract gas from shale fires demand for the fine sand.
Citizens on the other side of the state have packed committee and board hearings, held community meetings and physically blocked trucks hauling fracking sand. Those who argue for development talk jobs; those who oppose the strip mines talk water quality, dust, property value, natural beauty, property values–and jobs, created by tourism from people seeking the loveliness of the Upper Mississippi’s driftless region.
Neither a need for dialogue nor the Ortonville Township Board of Supervisors was slowing down Big Stone County Planning Commission Chair Vicki Oakes in Clinton on Thursday Night.
And despite a rising series of complications and permit conditions involving dust, water quality issues, livestock health, road access, rare plants, and other issues, Oakes was pushing for “consensus,” which looked more like taking a vote and getting a simple majority agreement than the generally accepted definition of consensus.
This seemed odd, as many reasonable people in the crowd thought that perhaps the discussion might have led rational people to conclude that the site wasn’t a particularly good choice for the operation, especially since there are so many other areas in the region where rock could be mined. Indeed, some observers later wondered why huge piles of tailings from old quarries couldn’t be crushed for aggregate–and that doing so might cost Strata less, thereby increasing profit. No time for dialogue on that.
Nor was Oakes buying a suggestion from a board member that perhaps Strata simply be allowed to have one quarry, for 30 years, so that the impacts of one mine could be assessed after one generation. Instead, she appeared to be on board with the notion that a permit for 130 years was the only reasonable approach for mining on the difficult site.
She also wanted the public to sit down and behave, though apparently she deemed representatives from Strata as having enough interest in the project to allow them to approach the tables where she sat to conduct side conversions that weren’t clear to the rest of us.
Indeed, it was difficult to note just who was speaking in the meeting, since Oakes tended not to call on board members by name before they spoke. Since the meeting was only being audiotaped (with videotaping forbidden), I knew that it would be hard to tell who said what when I got the tape, so I tried shooting video with my cellphone.
No dice: Oakes snapped at me to stop, and a few seconds later warned: “I better not see that posted on the Internet.”
The board voted 5-3, with one abstention, to recommend passage of the CUP by the County Commissioners. Since the vote wasn’t videotaped for all to see, a staff member at CURE created the graphic above.
After the meeting, I snapped some closeups of the board; Oakes ordered me to “Stop it.” I indentified myself as a reporter/writer from a blog. She seemed more angry than ever (one suspects that rough treatment in a local online forum may have influenced that rage).
A few moments later, I approached her like my hand extended to shake and attempted to introduce myself and name the place where I publish, but she snapped at me to stop again. I asked once more if she wanted to comment –a request met with a resounding no.
Perhaps she might profit from taking in that training on the Art of Hosting in May–as may I.
Photos: The vote in Clinton (top photo by BSP); the site in Ortonville Township (middle photo by Anne Queenan); Vicki Oakes after the meeting (bottom photo by BSP)