By the narrowest of margins, Houston County commissioners approved a contentious conditional use permit (CUP) renewal on June 24.

Houston County land use attorney Jay Squires advised the board to grant the application, stating that even though the CUP ran out while the Tracie Erickson sand mine was embroiled in legal challenges, the application was "held in abeyance" while the waters cleared.

The mine became entangled in lawsuits after Erickson signed an agreement with prospector Minnesota Sands to greatly expand the operation and convert it to frac sand production in spite of a county-wide moratorium on new frac sand mines.

Minnesota Sands has since dropped its effort to mine frac sand at the site and cancelled the agreement, Squires stated. The facility would presumably go back to commercial, not industrial production.

Two recent actions cleared the way for the mine to reopen. On Monday, June 23, District Judge Robert Birnbaum "dismissed entirely" a Writ of Mandamus filed against Houston County, Squires said. That document (filed by residents) would have forced the county to treat the permit as expired. Secondly, the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board passed a resolution on June 18 that released the property from a multi-site Environmental Impact Statement. That left Houston County as the RGU (responsible governmental unit) for the Yucatan Township mine.

"A CUP runs perpetually," Squires said, adding that renewals are automatic unless the conditions appear to have been violated, in which case, the county can call a public hearing. Following that, a CUP may be revoked.

Earlier, neighbor Rosemary Iverson objected to the renewal, stating that there were in fact violations at the site before the county issued a stop work order to Minnesota Sands in 2012. Money Creek resident Steve Hartwick asked that the permit not be renewed without the installation of silica dust monitoring equipment.

Ironically, Squires argued for approval to keep conditions in place to protect neighbors. Those will now include limiting production to 10,000 cubic yards of material per year, and leaving vegetative screening in place between the mine and neighboring landowners."It's necessary for the board to act today to ensure that something that might negatively impact surrounding property owners doesn't happen," he said during opening remarks. Without action, the permit would automatically renew (worded as-is) due to the "60-day rule" Squires added. The two conditions are clarifications on the 1992 permit, rather than entirely new stipulations.

The vote was 3-2, with commissioners Justin Zmyewski and Dan Kjome voting against renewal. Zmyewski noted "gray areas" in the permit language during the meeting and said afterwords that there were "still too many loose ends that need to be tied up" in the convoluted case. Kjome asked Squires about the extended time that had elapsed since the last renewal expired, and noted recent state statutes on trout stream setback requirements which could also come into play.

"That's the problem I have with the renewal," he said. "How do we as a county ever put new conditions on old mines when they come up for renewal?

Squires acknowledged the point, but said that the board would have to act under the current ordinance until changes are made. "The ordinance is a living, breathing document," he stated.

The vote also directed county staff to prepare a list of "findings" which commissioners can formally adopt at a later date. Those will be aimed at documenting the reasons for the CUP renewal.

New software for sheriff, police departments?

The board also voted to allow the Sheriff's Department to negotiate with software company LETG for a new records management system. Chief deputy Scott Yeiter said that Houston County can use an RFP (request for proposal) from Winona County to nail down some specific costs. The program offers electronic integration and mobile data flow of what used to be called "paperwork," and could save the county and city police departments a great deal of time, he added.

Yeiter said that the system bears an estimated price tag of $190,748 for Houston County, with annual support costs of $28,398. Local police departments are also interested, he noted. For Spring Grove, the estimated cost would be $9738, with $1605 per year for maintenance.

An added bonus is that the package links with software from the same provider, allowing seamless transfer of data, Yeiter said. He reported that both Fillmore and Winona Counties will be using LETG.

The expense could be paid mostly out of E911 monies, Yeiter added. LETG has also offered a payment plan. The department is expected to have an contract offer for the board to consider in 30-60 days.

Seal coating approved

County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski brought two offers for annual roadway seal coating to the board. Low bidder Scott Construction won the contract at a cost of $387,189. That's 9.47% under the engineer's estimate for the work, Pogodzinski said.

Personnel/facilities

Commissioners approved a $30.00 per month cell phone per diem for public health nurse Nickie Folsom, effective immediately. Personnel/facilities director Tess Arrick-Kruger brought the request.

She also reported that the engineer's report of the historic county jail is complete, and shows "no major challenges to the structural integrity" of the building. Cost quotes for repairs are still not available. If the county chooses to maintain the structure, heaters that were brought in following last spring's water pipe break could keep the building safe through the winter, Arrick-Kruger reported.

Public hearing

The board called a public hearing to update the county's peddler's licensing system. No citizens spoke on the measure, which Sheriff's Office captain Luke Sass said would allow transient merchants and peddlers to extend/renew their licenses during the same calendar year as they were issued. As of Dec. 31 of each year, a new license will be required. Transient merchant licenses can be renewed for seven days at a time, while peddler licenses have a term of 30 days on each renewal. Following the hearing, the change to the ordinance was approved.