Mine owner Tracie Erickson addresses The Planning Commission on April 30. PHOTO: CRAIG MOORHEAD/SPRING GROVE HERALD
Mine owner Tracie Erickson addresses The Planning Commission on April 30. PHOTO: CRAIG MOORHEAD/SPRING GROVE HERALD
The Houston County Planning Commission got an earful from residents on Wednesday, April 30.

More than 30 persons packed into the former courtroom - now the commissioner's room, and arguments were as intense as in any court case over the renewal of a controversial conditional use permit (CUP) for Tracie Erickson of Yucatan Township.

Erickson was embroiled in a drawn-out battle with the county after he signed an agreement with prospector Minnesota Sands to extract frac sand from the property in 2012. His relationship with Minnesota Sands has since dissolved, Erickson said. But resuming sand mining for commercial (not industrial) use at a much lower level of production did not set well with some neighbors last Wednesday.

The board did not hold a public hearing on the matter, but did allow public comment. Fourteen people spoke.

Neighbors Sue Van Gorp, Corey Baker and Rosemary Iverson all expressed reservations on the permit, which would limit production to 10,000 cubic yards per year, the same as past owners mined under the CUP.

The permit dates back to 1992. In 2012, Minnesota Sands had proposed to remove the equivalent of two hundred years' worth of material at a rate of 100 to 125 truckloads per day. Houston County stopped the company from mining, citing a moratorium on new frac sand permits.

"I just don't think that we should go ahead and do this," Commissioner Dana Kjome stated. He said that the property is still in limbo, after an Environmental Impact Statement ordered by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) included it on a list of Minnesota Sands projects. The EQB is set to meet on May 21, and could free the Erickson mine from the EIS requirement then, he added.

Fillmore County resident David Williams said, "As late as yesterday the Minnesota EQB informed Houston County by letter that the EIS is (still) pending... Houston County has no legal authority to approve any kind of permit for the Erickson property."

"This is silica sand. I don't care if silica sand is used to make granola or ice cream, it is silica sand that is mined, whether it is sold for frac sand or sold for construction. It is still the same mining activity that is going on, so let's not fictionalize what you're permitting."

Commissioner Rich Schild said that there are other legal issues that need to be cleared up before the application can be approved, since the wording of a court order which was issued after Minnesota Sands unsuccessfully sued the county seems to prohibit any mining at the site, regardless of the end use.

"Let's not lose focus," Erickson said. "It's a construction mine."

"We are not seeking to allow industrial mining on our property," Erickson's wife Michelle stated. "Renewing and returning our rightful ability to mine construction sand like the 150-plus other mines in Houston County should have been a simple process. For some reason, a group of people has decided that they no longer want us to have our construction permit. They have decided they would like to take away a portion of our livelihood.... Our mine has never had a single violation in the 20 plus years that it has been running."

"I think we need to review a few more things with this," Commissioner Glenn Kruse said. "The board could go down and take a look at this mine property.... Dana and I and (Chairman) Dan (Griffin) actually did drive down there one day, and if the rest of you guys want to do that some time, I think we could take a little bit of time and get all of the facts put together and then address it."

Kruse made a motion to table the CUP until the May 22 meeting of the Planning Commission. Seconded by Commissioner Garland Moe, it passed with one dissenting vote.

"This thing is very complex," Kruse told Erickson, "Just have patience."

"We need to dig into this," Griffin said prior to the ballot. Members asked Erickson if they could visit the site individually or in small groups, so that they could avoid gathering together in a quorum. He agreed.

The single "no" vote came from Commissioner Charles Wieser, who said, "He (Erickson) has rights, too... We've got to treat everybody equal."

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Commissioners also recommended that two other CUP renewals be approved by the county board. Those included a Mayville Township mine owned by David Pieper and operated by Bonanza Grain, and a Milestone Materials facility located in section 22 of Jefferson Township.

Nine building permits won approval as well. They included three new homes, some decks, and a number of pole buildings, calf sheds and other ag structures.

Finally, commissioners reviewed an exhibition permit for Leonard Jr. and Holly Wieser of Yucatan Township. No violations were noted on the CUP, which was granted last year. John Kulas of Houston Township expressed concerns, however. "I live a mile away from that site," he said. "I just want to know what you guys are going to do if they have this Rock Fest in August, and it sounds like it's right in my back yard at 1 a.m."

Griffin said that if the conditions of the permit are violated, the county will intervene. Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan told Kulas that he could call him if there were any problems. The permit won approval, with Wieser abstaining from the vote.