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Commission will continue discussing GNPD's rezoning request

DICKINSON - The Stark County Commission tabled a rezoning request from Great Northern Power Development LP for its proposed coal gasification plant near South Heart until it "recreates" a gathering that Great Northern held in Dickinson this past Dec. 14.

At Tuesday's regular monthly meeting, commissioners decided to continue discussion on the rezoning matter during their April regular meeting. At the upcoming April meeting, commissioners are inviting Great Northern representatives to again give a presentation they made at Dickinson's Days Inn in December. The December gathering organized by Great Northern is the focal point of a request made by the Dakota Resource Council of Dickinson that alleges the county commission violated the state's open meeting law since a quorum of the county commission was present.

Stark County Commissioners Russ Hoff, Duane Wolf, Chet Willer and George Nodland were among area elected officials and others who were invited by Great Northern to attend the December meeting.

The commission followed the recommendation of Stark County State's Attorney Tom Henning to recreate the December Great Northern gathering.

"We did receive an inquiry from the Attorney General's office concerning a possible violation of the open meetings law in late December," Henning said.

Because a quorum of county commissioners was at the December Great Northern gathering, it may be viewed as a violation of the open meetings law, even though the commission itself did not originate the event.

"I think it would be advisable -- and it apparently is agreeable with the company -- for this board to have that presentation duplicated," Henning said.

The act of duplicating the meeting in question would help address any possible repercussions caused by such a violation.

"The reason I suggest this is that in the instance that you were found to be in violation of an open meetings violation you would have to cure it anyway," Henning said. "That act...would remove any shadow or specter of violation of that statute."

Henning went on to say the county commission does not deliberately deal with any public matters in private.

"We do our governance in the public's eye and we need to be sure that we are always mindful of that requirement in the state of North Dakota," Henning said.

Commission chair Wolf agreed with Henning that the commissioners who attended the December gathering understood it to be a social and informational gathering.

"Looking at the statute, it is very likely that we were in violation, there were four of us there," Wolf said. "In order to remedy that, if they do rule there is a violation of the open meetings (law), by having the presentation made to us in a public meeting, we've made that a moot (issue)."

The board plans to set aside roughly a half an hour for the replication of Great Northern's presentation at the April meeting.

The county commission had the rezoning request in front of it Tuesday morning after the Stark County Zoning Board passed the rezoning request, with specific conditions, Monday afternoon.

Nodland chairs the zoning board and presented the amendment to the county commission. He highlighted his appreciation for individuals on both sides of the issue who have discussed questions and concerns.

"This is the beautiful thing about America. We can go through these things. No one can just come in and shove it down your throat," Nodland said. "The zoning board went through a lot of pain and I really think they came up with a good decision."

Many area residents attended Tuesday's county commission meeting, but nobody chose to speak formally regarding the issue.

In an unrelated matter, Tim Kelly of Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson presented a speed limit study it conducted on the Enchanted Highway. The study was associated with a resurfacing project that is to take place on the highway this year.

"This study was intended to verify some of the concerns and questions that people had on the operating speed and other issues on the Enchanted Highway," Kelly said.

The results of the survey showed many vehicles have been traveling at speeds greater than the current 50 mph speed limit.

"The 85th percentile speed at all four of the sites that we collected data was equal to or above 65 mph," Kelly said.

He added a "cluster" of traffic is traveling significantly faster than the current limit, while a very small percentage of the traffic was traveling at or below the speed limit.

"Our final recommendation that we're proposing to both commissions (Hettinger and Stark) is that the speed limit be raised on the Enchanted Highway from the current 50 mph for passenger vehicles and 45 for trucks, to 60 mph for all vehicles," Kelly said. "The only exception would be the area north of the interstate, and of course we would need to do appropriate speed zoning coming in and out of Gladstone, Lefor and Regent," Kelly said.

He also discussed the variety of conditions that Kadrmas, Lee, and Jackson took into consideration before giving its recommendation. They examined road characteristics, speed, types of vehicles using the road, roadside environment, number of approaches, and crash history, among other conditions.

"There was 21 crashes in the last three years. The crash rate on this road for as fast as people are traveling is half the statewide average and in most of the crashes - 13 out of the 21 - involve animal crashes," Kelly said. "Really, there's not a lot of crashes that are happening that are of an engineering concern."

Kadrmas, Lee, and Jackson recommended "no passing zones" on the Enchanted Highway be extended and that a single speed limit be enforced, instead of also incorporating a lower speed for trucks. It also suggested law enforcement be increased along the highway to prevent people from traveling even faster than they already are.

Commissioners accepted the recommendation to increase the speed limit, which is contingent upon Hettinger County also accepting the change. The increase will not be implemented until after the resurfacing project is completed.