Ortonville tussles over mining proposal, a familar fight in Minn.by Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
ORTONVILLE, Minn. — A tug of war is playing out over a proposed granite quarry in west central Minnesota, one that mirrors other battles across the state.
When North Dakota-based Strata Corporation proposed a quarry near Ortonville earlier this year, the board of rural Ortonville Township, slapped a moratorium on any new mining project.
Although Big Stone County commissioners later approved the quarry proposed, the moratorium appeared to doom the project, said city resident Gayle Hedge, who, along with several relatives, owns the land where the quarry would be located. But a new alternative surfaced, when Hedge and other landowners asked the city to annex the land, a process that is now under way.
Disputes over mining proposals are becoming increasingly common in Minnesota and the outcome often turns on whether a city decides to annex mining land from a nearby township.
Township officials complain that cities have all the clout in Minnesota's annexation process. A decision on a quarry should be decided by residents who live closest to it, Ortonville Township board member Rusty Dimberg said.
"I think it should be the township and the township alone," Dimberg said. "If Strata wants it as bad as they want it, and if the landowner wants it as bad as they want it, they should come and talk to the township, And see what we can do about it."
To save the mining proposal, Ortonville officials plan to move their city's boundaries so the quarry falls within Ortonville and so the City Council, not the township board, has jurisdiction over it.
Hedge said he thinks there's a good chance the city will approve the quarry if the annexation is finalized. Quarry opponents call the move an end run around the township's governing authority.
Critics say the quarry will create air pollution and lower property values. The city council's move to annex the land shows the fix is in, quarry opponent Larry Benkowski said.
"It's stacked against us right from the beginning," Benkowski said. "They made up their minds long ago that this quarry was coming in here."
Benkowski said city leaders want the employment the quarry would bring, even though he said it would create only about eight new jobs, a relatively small number.
The city would also gain extra revenue through electricity sales to the quarry.
Gary Pedersen, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships, said the Ortonville standoff is familiar. He said state law gives cities the upper hand in most annexation fights.
"They can just annex it by a decision at the city council, without any communication whatsoever really from the township," Pedersen said.
A township's only recourse is to challenge the action in court, but many townships though don't have the funds for that type of legal battle, Pederson said.
City officials generally say they need strong annexation powers to maintain orderly development. The number of annexations in Minnesota is on the rise, with 79 completed through the end of October this year. That's well ahead of last year's pace of 73 for the entire year.
In Ortonville, City Council member and mayoral candidate Steve Berkner said economic development is the main reason why he leans in favor of the quarry idea. But he said city approval of the quarry plan is not pre-ordained. Strata will have to prove their case.
"It's in our best interest to give them a chance, to listen, to what their development plans are," Berkner said. "I mean anything could happen, we could change our position."
But opponents are skeptical. Ortonville township board member Rusty Dimberg vows to contest what he calls a city power grab.
"We're putting our heels into the rock and we're not moving," Dimberg said. "We're going to fight it 'til the end."
A FAMILIAR STORY
The situation in Ortonville may be the most heated annexation drama playing out right now, but it's not the only one. In southeast Minnesota, the debate is over mining sand for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in oil and gas fields.
The city of St. Charles proposed annexing land for a frac sand processing plant, but the township turned them down. City officials though haven't given up on the idea.
Such disputes are likely to continue. In 2007, state lawmakers established a task force to study the state's annexation policy. Although both city and township task force members agreed the state's annexation process is in need of reform, they could only agree to disagree on how to fix it.