South Heart rail project approved
Stark County commissioners on Tuesday gave final approval to rezone a 686-acre plot for a rail terminal 5 miles west of South Heart, but not without a lengthy list of stipulations.
Commissioners who also sit on the zoning board said the biggest issue when the first time developers applied for the agriculture-to-industrial rezoning — when they were denied — was questions over whether the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad could handle the extra service while still not allowing oil to take priority over agriculture.
Between the late-September public hearing and the one last week, they said, their questions were answered and they became more comfortable with the plan.
The full commission on Tuesday followed the zoning board’s recommendation but added conditions.
“It was visiting with the railroad and [BNSF] telling us about how they were gonna take care of the ag plus the oil,” zoning board chair and Commissioner Russ Hoff said.
He never had a problem with the project itself, he said.
“My deal was basically with the railroad and of course we didn’t have our conditions [before].”
Great Northern Project Development plans to create a transloading facility to receive loads of fracking proppants, aggregate, oilfield equipment, agricultural products and building products.
BNSF is spending a lot of money to meet demand, Hoff said, and “they’re gonna make sure that agriculture is taken care of as well as oil.
“They’re not gonna ignore agriculture.”
The commissioners’ acceptance of the project might mean organized neighborhood opposition, including many testimonials against the project at the two public hearings, may have been for naught.
“We felt that this project was a worthy project but the fact is that BNSF needed to provide us with some answers as to why they have not been able to service the present customers,” zoning board member and Commissioner Jay Elkin said.
Recently, shipments of grain have not been taking place or were falling behind, he said, but talks with BNSF taught him that the company is working on the issues with maintenance and additional crews.
Along with County Planner Steve Josephson, Elkin and Hoff — the county’s two representatives on the zoning board — drafted the conditions between the zoning board meeting last week and Tuesday’s commission meeting.
Hoff took issue with claims in letters to the editor published in The Press that the county had given developers a blank check with the land’s rezoning.
With conditions that tie developers to the land use plans they applied with and giving them a two-year time limit to get started before the land would revert to agriculture zoning, Hoff said, “this is not a blank check.”
Elkin said he’s confident developers would make progress within the two years.
Other conditions included:
V Any portions of the parcel that aren’t used for industrial development must be used for agriculture.
V A county weed officer must inspect the property for potential invasive and noxious weeds before construction starts. Developers would be responsible for any weed control.
V Developers are responsible for dust and erosion control during construction.
V Developers must work with law enforcement and emergency responders to facilitate public safety.
V In order to obtain building permits, developers must make a series of improvements to area infrastructure, including installing storm water management facilities, improving the intersection of Highway 10 and 125th Avenue Southwest, paving sections of road near the project and installing other required off-site improvements like turning lanes.
“The conditions were something that Commissioner Hoff and I felt needed to be put in place to more or less to protect the citizens of this county and the county in general,” Elkin said.
Laurie Solberg, a representative of grassroots group Neighbors United, said the conditions don’t allay her concerns.
“I’m glad they gave them some stipulations but I still think that it was a premature decision on (the commissioners’) part because they should’ve made them have a (planned unit development),” she said.
A planned unit development is a more regulated process for land use.
A larger concern of Solberg’s is the trend of agriculture-to-industrial rezoning in the rural area.
“Where does this all stop?” she said.
That ties into the reason Josephson recommended denying the application — a decision he stands by, even with the conditions.
He said some of the conditions address his concerns about the uses that are going to be allowed on the site.
But he stands by his reasons for recommending denial — that the rezoning is inconsistent with the zoning pattern in that area, and that it would allow uses generally incompatible with other uses in the area.
In letters to the editor in The Press, neighbors near the project site have questioned why commissioners don’t follow the county planner’s recommendations, but county officials say that happens from time to time because commissioners have a broader perspective and more factors to consider than the county planner.
“They have a much larger picture to take into account,” Josephson said. “They definitely have other considerations that enter into their decision.”
Hoff also emphasized this.
“We consider our county planner’s recommendations on applications. But there are other factors to consider and we may disagree,” he said.
The rezoning is also dependent on the commission receiving written proof of BNSF’s new business review of the project — completing this lengthy and expensive process proves developers’ commitment to this process, Hoff said.
Great Northern CEO Charles Kerr said in an interview Tuesday that the conditions are workable and many likely would’ve been incorporated into the project anyway.
“It’s just formalizing certain conditions that you just want to make sure are built into the project,” he said.
“We want to be a good neighbor but there’s gonna be impacts and we recognize that,” Kerr said. “There’s gonna be impacts regardless because of what’s happening in the region and it’s because of the oil and gas development. It’s coming — we’re just a part of it.”
A major concern for Neighbors United is the projected increase of up to 300 trucks a day on Highway 10 to transport goods that come in on the rail.
“I guess time will tell,” Solberg said. “But I still worry about everyone’s safety on Highway 10 and the noise, and what we will have to look at for the rest of our lives.”
Wind farm update
Commissioners on Tuesday also heard an update on the planned Sunflower wind project, which would consist of up to 65 turbines along the Stark-Morton county border, 4 miles south of Hebron.
Infinity Wind Power’s Casey Willis told commissioners that the company is currently working with wildlife agencies and others on the potential impact the farm could have, and are studying wind conditions in the area.
He said the company expects to file for conditional use permits with county zoning authorities in the first quarter of 2014.
The target operational date is toward the end of 2015, Willis said.