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Stark Co. zoning board OK’s controversial South Heart rail terminal

Press Photo by Katherine Lymn Todd Joyner, president and CEO of Great Northern Project Development, discusses the company’s South Heart rail terminal project before Stark County zoning board members at the Stark County Courthouse on Wednesday evening.

On the second go around, Stark County Planning and Zoning Board members approved a 686-acre agricultural-to-industrial rezoning request on Wednesday from developers seeking to build a rail terminal 5 miles west of South Heart.

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Commissioners tacked on a catch in an attempt to mitigate the concerns of local landowners — developers must meet with county officials to determine the best way to improve one of the main roads to be used by the facility.

This reverses a decision commissioners made when developer Great Northern Project Development first brought the project before them in late September.

All the board members present, except Kurt Froelich, voted Wednesday to approve the project. Board Chair Russ Hoff will bring the recommendation to the full County Commission at its Tuesday meeting.

Froelich said “a lot of unanswered questions” about the project gave him pause.

“I’m really concerned about that issue and moving into the future and can they really satisfy the needs of everybody? That’s a very strong concern of mine,” he said.

“I’m also very strongly concerned about the safety of the people in that area that this thing is gonna affect.”

But the majority of the commissioners had an outlook that if the project didn’t develop in Stark County — and bring in tax dollars and jobs — it would just move further down the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line.

“If we don’t move forward, then this goes down the line into Billings County, let’s just say,” Hoff said. That’s “lost tax revenue, and we’re still gonna get the traffic and we’re still gonna get the trucks to our area.”

So commissioners OK’d the project, with the stipulation of developers working with officials to make paving and widening improvements 125th Street.

At both hearings, grassroots group “Neighbors United” came out strong, with many of the locals testifying twice. They shared yellow T-shirts and concerns over the estimated 300 more trucks a day on Highway 10 to truck out the materials coming in by rail.

Project heads said they had made many changes in the two months since the last rezoning attempt, but local landowners say their concerns were not erased.

A sticking point in September was whether BNSF, already overwhelmed and causing delays when it dissects small towns during delays, could handle the new rail spur.

But a BNSF executive and project heads testified that there had been extensive discussions ensuring it was worth the investment on both ends.

“Not only did we have to vet Burlington Northern Santa Fe and make sure that they could meet our needs,” Great Northern Properties CEO Charles Kerr told the board, “Burlington Northern Santa Fe has also had to vet us.”

“We believe that the fundamentals of the South Heart project are sound. We believe that the changes that have occurred since the last hearing are significant and material,” Kerr said.

Developers want to create a transloading facility to receive loads of fracking proppants, aggregate, oilfield equipment, agricultural products and building products.

As he did the first go around, county planner Steve Josephson recommended denial of the rezoning because it isn’t consistent with zoning in the vicinity of the site, and because it would allow uses “generally not compatible with or comparable to” uses in the vicinity.

In speaking to the board, Josephson said the developers didn’t address any mitigation of issues for nearby landowners, like dust or fumes.

“In the past two months, what has changed?” asked local resident Mary Hodell. “It’s the same proposal here again we still have the same concerns. I don’t understand what the hurry is.”

Nearby landowner Laurie Solberg echoed Hodell.

“None of this has changed. We’ve heard a lot of their promises but the other thing is they’ve not spoken about any of the noise that will affect us that are very close to this,” she said.

Stark Development Corporation executive vice president Gaylon Baker voiced support for the project because of the jobs it’d provide.

“Workforce development is our big deal and a project like this, the great thing in the realm of workforce development that it does for us is these are all head-of-household jobs.”

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