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How to Game Zoning-Law Loopholes and Vandalize Scenic Lands: The Strata Story

4:17 pm in Uncategorized by Phoenix Woman

Photo by James Robins

A year and a half ago, I mentioned the efforts of the residents of Minnesota’s Big Stone County to keep North Dakota’s Strata Corporation from destroying the Big Stones that make the county a prime tourist destination, just so they could turn them into concrete.

Strata started its push to blow up the Big Stones right as “pro-business” types in the Minnesota legislature tried to ram through a bill, HF 389, that would have gutted local control, thus opening the way for big businesses like Strata to run roughshod over small townships and municipalities. The bill stalled out in the Senate, but (h/t Bluestem) Strata soon found another way to run roughshod over the small townships of Big Stone County:

Despite clear opposition to the quarry project from the township and a sizable portion of the county as a whole, Big Stone County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve Strata’s Conditional Use Permit at their May 1, 2012 meeting. However, due to the township’s interim ordinance (which suspended the county’s jurisdictional authority), the project still couldn’t move forward.

Re-entering the scene, former County Planning and Zoning Chair and Ortonville EDA Director Vicki Oakes began working with proposed quarry site landowner Gayle Hedge, along with Strata and the City of Ortonville to devise a new plan to push the project through.

Oakes also waged a campaign of righteousness and ridicule against quarry opponents, Ortonville Township supervisors, citizens, and those “outsiders” who helped them on her blog, Quarry Talk. The blog has since been removed from the web, but her August 5, 2012 post entitled, “New Township Zoning–The Future!” is quoted and discussed here.

Hedge subdivided among family members the 500-or-so acre proposed quarry site, which abutted the city boundary, into 6 separate very interestingly-shaped parcels, each with a small portion abutting the city, and each of the new owners petitioned the city for annexation.

Annexations by ordinance of 120 acres per owner per year of property that abuts the city boundary are allowed by the state of Minnesota. Anything more than that requires the city to negotiate with the township in whose borders the land falls. Due to the clearly-expressed sentiments of township residents, bringing the township to the negotiating table didn’t seem a likely way to make the project happen, hence the subdivision.

And, while an interim ordinance can protect a township from development pushed by the county, it cannot protect them from a land-grab by an adjoining city. Once land is annexed into the city, it is no longer within the township’s jurisdiction, even if township-controlled land still surrounds the annexed parcel(s) almost entirely.

The city had recently amended their zoning rules to immediately place annexed land into the same land use category as the land it abuts–an obvious attempt to circumvent a later public hearing addressing a change of zoning on annexed parcels specifically for the Strata project.

After all, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to do zoning-by-abutment if, for instance, you’re annexing land abutting an industrial area that is destined for a golf course or housing development, or if you’re annexing land that abuts two different zoning districts. But, clearly the goal here wasn’t to make sense, it was to pave the smoothest way for Strata’s quarry project to move forward.

The nation was rightly disgusted last week when some scout troop leaders decided for no good reason to destroy a 170-million-year-old scenic rock formation in Utah. Meanwhile, with little notice aside from the efforts of various local activists and bloggers, the Strata Corporation was putting the finishing touches on its two-years-long plans to vandalize countless scenic rock formations in Minnesota that are twenty times as old, by using power, money, and zoning-law loopholes to get its way.

Big Trouble in Big Stone County: Strata Wants To Turn Some of Earth’s Oldest Rocks into Concrete

5:30 pm in Uncategorized by Phoenix Woman

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the efforts of a big mining corporation named Strata to bulldoze its way past local opposition in Minnesota’s Big Stone Country, just as a bill designed to gut local control was making its way through the Republican-controlled Minnesota legislature. While that bill, HF 389, did manage to pass the House, it stalled out in the Senate and may (may!) be dead for what’s left of this legislative session. That’s good news for Minnesota as a whole, but while the HF 389 threat is (likely) gone, the problem with Strata still remains.

To recap: Big Stone County, Minnesota, has lots of Big Stones of granite and gneiss that are among the oldest rocks on the planet, in some cases dating back to the Early Archean Period — that’s 3.6 billion years ago, folks. (You can see some of these stones in the picture above, taken by James Robins.) These gigantic stones, the very ones Strata wants to blow up for concrete, are a prime scenic and tourist attraction, providing lots of jobs and millions of dollars each year for the Western Boundary Waters area as well as the county’s very name. By contrast, Strata’s planned project will only create 5 to 6 jobs at most and maybe $20,000 in tax revenue per year while costing a lot in wear and tear. What’s worse, the proposed mining site will be located near several homes, a bike trail, and a particularly beautiful part of the Minnesota River.

The tourism and slow food movement is growing out in the Upper Minnesota River Valley, and the corridor is extremely likely to be named a National Blueway outdoor recreation and natural area by US Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar within the next two weeks. It’s already one of Minnesota’s two America’s Great Outdoors Areas as designated by the DOI.

There’s a public hearing on the project on April 17, at 7 p.m., in Ortonville. If you’re a Minnesotan or know any Minnesotans you think would be interested in this, please spread the word as much as possible to show the county commissioners that people from across Minnesota care about their community. If you can’t attend, you can still submit your thoughts on this project by following the instructions laid out here.