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

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 Corporationfrom 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.

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