A conditional use permit (CUP) hearing for Bonanza Grain of Caledonia Township was tabled by the Houston County Planning Commission on May 23.

The permit would allow the company to expand a rock quarry in an agricultural district, Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan told the board.

"We were made aware of the expansion, after a complaint was called into the office," Scanlan reported. "Once we followed up on that complaint, we found that it looked like the mine had expanded beyond the permitted area.

"The original permit from 2001 was roughly 10 acres in size. The application for tonight includes a description that is 27.5 acres. Of that, not all would be mined. There is some crop land included."

Scanlan said the site produces sand for livestock bedding and construction. There is 60 feet of "usable sand" being removed. About 2 feet of topsoil and 5 to 15 feet of rock overburden lie above the deposit.

The Caledonia Township Board has no objections to granting the CUP, as long as all applicable ordinances and conditions are followed, according to a statement read into the record by Scanlan.

The missive included this caveat, "The town board became aware of concerns with the existing quarry. Therefore there should be special consideration as to the use of explosives in the granting of this application."

Blast concerns raised

After an April 4, 2013, blast, county staff received a complaint that damage was done to nearby homes. Two of the persons who spoke to the board said their homes have been damaged by the use of explosives at the facility.

"I've had extensive damage to the house through the years," Nancy Schroeder stated, "Including my chimney falling off as I was sitting on the front porch when one blast went off.

"It seems like every time they blast it's getting louder. With this last one, my house moved and shook. I have a new addition, and it cracked every corner and the ceiling, and it has almost destroyed the wallpaper in one room upstairs. There's extensive damage in my basement.

"There's many, many thousands of dollars' worth of damage done from this blasting. I don't want them to blast out there. It's scary, when your house moves. I don't approve of them getting a permit, and I would like my house fixed."

Brent Schroeder, Nancy's son, reported that his recently built home is near the mine and has also been damaged. He didn't find fault, however, adding, "The explosive company has been great to deal with. We just want our stuff fixed."

Greg Lamers of Bennett Explosives provided a description of his work at the site, which typically uses blasting twice a year.

"Blasting has changed so much in the last 10 years," Lamers said, adding that two seismographs were set up at houses closer to the site than the Schroeder residences.

"We've been getting a quarter of the readings that we can have," he stated. The readings are for air pressure and vibrations with limits set in this instance by federal regulations.

"That shot was for 16,000 tons of sand," Lamers said of the April 4 event.

"We did not have a seismograph at the alleged damage; we had them at closer residences. We did talk to them (the homeowners)."

He said that a third company was called in to investigate the homes where damage occurred.

"What they do is, they go through the house and measure cracks to see where they are, and if there are issues in the future they can come in and look, and we have a baseline to start on.

"If we see that we're doing damage we'll call our insurance company."

Members questioned Lamers for an extended time, asking whether the type and size of each blast, the time of year (frozen or unfrozen soils) or a myriad of other factors could affect nearby homes.

Commissioner Dana Kjome asked if the company has a bond for the operation.

Scanlan said that it did not, but added, "It's up to the county board to require that."

Other concerns raised

Houston resident Kelley Stanage questioned Scanlan on the issue of granting an "after the fact" CUP to a company that had moved beyond the boundary of its original permit.

He replied that his department tries to bring applicants into compliance with local regulations, rather than levying fines.

Under the ordinance, the county can charge $75 per day if "the owner refuses to work towards compliance," he added.

"This is probably the first of many of these complaints you are going to have in Houston County with regard to sand mining," Stanage noted. "The fact is, the homeowner would have to sue the mining company and that typically costs $20,000 to $30,000.

"You guys are in a position where you need to make a choice. Are you going to protect the residents of Houston County? Are you going to stand true to the findings that are required for a conditional use permit?"

Stanage repeated one of the "findings of fact" that CUP applications must clear. "Will the conditional use be injurious to the use and enjoyment of other property in the immediate vicinity for the purposes already permitted?

"This is not easy, and you're in a tough spot. But I think it's really important that you think really hard about what your responsibility is to the citizens of Houston County."

Caledonia resident Bruce Kuehmichel also spoke, asking if the facility might contaminate groundwater.

"The water tower at (Caledonia) City Hall is 1.572 miles from this mine," he noted.

Later, he joined Stanage in questioning whether companies should be allowed to violate the conditions of their permitting with no apparent consequences.

Commissioner Garland Moe made a motion to table the CUP for more information.

"We need to study it a little more so that we can get more understanding. Right now we really don't know. We can then look for more expertise on this subject," he said.

Commissioner Dan Griffin seconded the motion. During discussion, Commissioner Bruce Lee suggested a site visit.

"With the site the way it is, they're already doing damage to the neighbors' property," Kjome said. "And you're asking to expand it closer to the neighbors?"

The motion passed with Kjome voting "no".

Members decided to visit the mine and homes on June 18. Later, commissioners added another stop to that tour.

Recreation area discussed again

Alan Frydenlund of Spring Grove appeared with several family members to discuss the status of a set of cabins that he, his mother and brother own in rural Spring Grove.

Frydenlund said he wants to bring the family recreation area into compliance with county regulations and get a permit for a fourth cabin to be built by his other brother.

In addition, the family would like to install a septic system, he added.

Frydenlund told commissioners that he is having an elevation study done to show the county that none of the buildings is in the floodplain.

Commissioner Terry Rosendahl confirmed that the cabins are not permanent residences, but added, "We don't have the tools or the application to deal with this."

That's when the board decided by consensus to meet first at the Frydenlund property to view the cabins on June 18, prior to the mine tour.

Scanlan said that campgrounds fall under the county's range of conditional uses, but the definition of what constitutes a campground may be an issue.

There was no decision on how to proceed, other than to begin with a viewing.

One-lot subdivision allowed

Commissioners voted to recommend approval of a one-lot subdivision rezone from A-1 (agricultural) to residential for Nick Thesing of Money Creek Township.

As holder of an enforceable option for the purchase of a six acre parcel on State Highway 76 less than two miles from Money Creek, Thesing wants to replace an existing trailer with a stick-built home, Scanlan explained.

"Approximately half of the parcel is either steep slope or flood plains, leaving about three acres of pretty-good building site," Scanlan reported.

"The reason they're coming in to re-zone is because there's already one other house within that quarter-quarter section. That prohibits them from bringing in an additional house in an agricultural district."

"There's been a trailer there for about 30 years," Thesing said. "We're in the process of purchasing the property now. We've lived there for 10 years."

Chairman Charlie Wieser repeated his call for the county board to change the quarter/quarter rule in regards to agricultural districts and building permits.

"I think it's got to be pursued very shortly. This is going to cost Nick $5,000 to $6,000 before he gets done," he stated.

Currently, there is only one agricultural district in the county. A second, less stringent agricultural district might allow landowners to obtain building permits more easily, Wieser added later.

Other CUPs approved

A conditional use hearing for Josh Swenson of Sheldon Township to build a house on a lot of less than 40 acres within an agricultural district also resulted in a vote of approval. That permit will go to the county board on June 4 for a vote.

A CUP for Northern Natural Gas to expand a portion of perpetual easement to 75 ft. by 50 ft. to place a "launcher" on a natural gas pipeline in Money Creek Township got a nod of approval as well.

Company officials said the unmanned launcher facility would typically be used once every seven years to inspect the pipeline. Two to three "tool runs" are typically performed, Corrosion Technician Kay Klemmer of the company's Rochester office said. The easement is along Dump Hill Road.

Scanlan said that since the company would like to begin the installation soon, he would try to have the CUP placed on the May 28 county board agenda.

A dozen building permits were approved. They include four home additions, three decks, a barn, pole building and garage. There was also one new home with garage and a permit for a temporary asphalt plant to be located in Spring Grove Township.