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Gerry and Margie Richels have been fighting an uphill battle with Blaine City Hall for almost two years.
Their property used to be at a higher elevation than the land next to them. But since the city allowed a developer to raise the elevation 6 feet and build houses on it, water and silt washes down into the Richels' yard.
Richels, a retired engineer, had warned that such a thing might happen when he caught wind of the project, but the city promised him it wouldn't. His frequent complaints to City Hall since then have prompted numerous attempts to stop the erosion and drainage trouble, but he's still not satisfied -- especially since the city allowed the berm to be built right up to Richels' property line, despite a standard calling for a 3-foot setback.
City officials, for their part, are exasperated with Richels. One council member calls it the "project from hell."
Mayor Tom Ryan acknowledges that since the townhouses were built, "it's a 6-foot drop right onto his property. It's steep." But he indicated Richels is in good company. "Drainage problems in this city are pretty typical."
They're also a frequent source of conflict among neighbors.
"Property owners have the right to drain water from their property onto their neighbor's, as long as it doesn't unreasonably damage their neighbors'," said Adam A. Ripple, a lawyer at Rinke Noonan, a St. Cloud firm that specializes in these kinds of disputes. "That, as you can imagine, does nothing but breed litigation and arguments. There's usually not a clear-cut way to resolve issues if you have folks that don't want to work together toward a common solution."
At this point, the city and the Richelses seem far apart.
When Richels bought his property in 1998, his next-door neighbor was a farm. There's disagreement about which way the water used to flow -- the mayor says that the farmland drained onto Richels' property, but a hydrologist hired by Richels concluded the water used to drain in the other direction.
In 2006, when Merit Development Co. Inc. went before the planning commission for zoning approval to build on the site, Richels expressed his concerns about runoff. Commission meeting minutes show that the city's project coordinator, Tom Scott, said "that it will be looked at with the grading plan to be sure there will be no runoff water running into Mr. Richels property."
Minks Custom Homes Inc. later became the developer. When nearby houses were built and dirt was graded two years ago, the yards for two houses abutting Richels' land were graded to slope down to the property line. While city engineering standards recommend a 3-foot setback for retaining walls from property lines, city manager Clark Arneson said those rules are "standards, not ordinances or statutes."
One home's downspouts directed water down the slope. With silt accumulated in his yard, Richels contacted the city with his objections.
The city directed the builder to undertake a series of remedial efforts. A swaled berm that slanted at 45 degrees, ending at the property line. A new gutter. Redirected downspouts. A double row of rocks on the hillside.
The measures helped, but the runoff continued.
Richels dogged city staff and council members with e-mails and phone calls as the berm's sod sagged and failed to take hold. Contractors repeatedly entered his property to collect debris or add another layer of dirt and sod to the berm.
This year, when the city sought permission to enter his property to plant seed for native plants, which they said would solve the problem once and for all, Richels said no.
A city engineer said the work could only safely be done from the bottom of the steep slope, but Richels told the engineer to ask the person who approved the project how to maintain the berm from the owner's property.
"Like any organization, you're going to have situations where mistakes happen," David Clark, a city councilman, said. If a project "can't be brought into compliance reasonably, then some other accommodation is generally worked out."
But Ryan, the mayor, feels the city has done everything it can to try to fix the problem, short of tearing down a house or building "the foolishest-looking [retaining wall] you've ever seen."
"I don't think he wants that," he said.
But Richels does want that.
In July 2011, he proposed a solution based on his reading of city rules: A 3-foot setback, a 4-foot-high retaining wall and a swale leading to a city sewer nearby. The idea gained no traction.
"I've lost over 200 hours in this. I've lost sleep over this because I wake up at night wondering how to get this fixed," Richels said.
If you missed Sunday's Whistleblower article, here it is. To add to the discussion, go to the original article.
Rotting wooden railroad ties and crumbling asphalt have long created a bumpy ride for south Minneapolis drivers and bicyclists traveling E. 35th Street near the grain elevators off Hiawatha Avenue.
But while minor patches were made last week, it's not clear when the road hazard will get a permanent repair. Doing so will require cooperation between three companies and the city, but for the moment, the groups are pointing fingers at each other over who will shoulder the biggest burden of the estimated $400,000 cost.
The seven sets of railroad tracks crossed by 35th Street are owned by General Mills, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Minnesota Commercial Railroad -- with the city owning areas on both sides of the tracks. The railroad, which is coordinating work among the companies, and the city disagree on how much both sides owe.
Wayne Hall Jr., director of operations and industrial development for Minnesota Commercial Railroad, said it's up to the city to request the concrete work and pay a majority of the money.
"The city has a large obligation," Hall said. "There are four different ownerships there. It's just a matter of working together."
But City Council Member Gary Schiff said the three companies should make the repairs. He said the city has received dozens of complaints the last 10 years about the railroad crossing's disrepair from drivers and bikers.
Ed Dillon, an avid bicyclist who lives off 35th Street, said the crossing was a "significant danger" because wheels could get stuck in the ruts.
"It's kind of absurd that it's such an awful situation," Dillon said. "It can't be much [money to fix] compared to other things in the city."
Last month, the Minnesota Commercial Railroad received 20 to 25 complaints, Hall said, after Schiff encouraged residents to voice their discontent. As a result, last week, workers with the city and the three companies removed rotting wood timbers and filled potholes and spaces next to the tracks with asphalt. The total cost of the repairs wasn't clear, but Hall said the railroad's share of work to repair one of the seven tracks cost $5,100.
It's not the concrete fix that residents like Dillon want. Last week, cars still slowed as they rocked up and down, hitting the bumps and crevices of the crossing.
"Most drivers will not notice a significant difference," Schiff said. "It's still a bumpy ride. The neighborhood still needs the long-term solution."
Heidi Hamilton, the city's deputy public works director, said a similar situation at 32nd Street was swiftly smoothed with concrete in 2006 thanks to a one-time federal grant. The 35th Street crossing doesn't qualify for federal aid, she said, but discussions about finding money for a long-term fix are just beginning.
"To coordinate everybody's budgets and schedules, it's a challenge," she said.
The railroad collaborates with several metro area counties and the state when it rebuilds crossings. This time, though, Hall said city leaders never approached the railroad about installing concrete. Instead, the first time they heard about the issue was through complaints referred by Schiff.
"There was a lack of communication," Hall said. "We work great with municipalities. This one kind of upset us the way it was handled."
For mechanics at Alexander's Import Auto Repair, located next to the tracks, the rough crossing isn't all bad. They've collected half a dozen wheel covers that have shaken off cars rattling over the tracks, owner Dan Swenson said.
"We're relieved," he said of the possibility of a smoother commute, "but it takes some business from us."
email@example.com • Twitter: @kellystrib
If you missed Sunday's Whistleblower column, here it is. To add to the discussion, go to the original article.
A paperwork pileup has left some of the neediest Rice County families waiting for weeks for food assistance and health insurance.
The social services backlog in the county, which includes Faribault and Northfield, has prompted concerned residents and community leaders to press county commissioners to make the paperwork processing more efficient.
County officials argue that they're trying to keep up with an unprecedented spike in social services applications since the economic downturn took a toll on families' finances. They say they have taken extra steps this month to unclog the system, including getting help from the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
"We're caught up," Rice County Social Services Director Mark Shaw said last week, "and we want to stay caught up."
Last summer, social services clients started complaining to people like Jim Blaha, executive director of the Community Action Center in Northfield, a nonprofit that provides food, clothing and other temporary support to families. He said he's heard from about 50 Rice County residents waiting an extra six weeks to five months for benefits due to processing delays.
"This is an abominable situation ... probably the worst the state has seen," Blaha said. "If [assistance] isn't restored right away, what are you supposed to do? It's back to square zero. It's a very tense situation for clients."
The state Department of Human Services received 38 complaints in the past six months from Rice County about delays in food assistance applications, a spokesman said, and the state set up a 30-day hotline for Rice County to help respond to questions. In addition, four state employees worked two days in Rice County to help. Ten employees from other counties also worked Saturdays through March 24 to alleviate the backlog.
But now, social services advocates say they fear the county won't be caught up for long if it doesn't add staff and resources to social services.
"They've done a lot of stop-gap things," said Bob Griggs, a pastor at First United Church of Christ in Northfield. "I would be concerned the problem simply isn't going to reemerge."
Most benefits applications have to be processed within 30 days, such as food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but there are no state-initiated fiscal sanctions in place if counties miss the deadlines, the state department said. Counties with processing rates under 95 percent are required to develop and implement a corrective action plan.
Shaw said his office aims to process all food and cash applications within 30 days and health assistance within 45 days, but "I think we're challenged with the capacity and case load we have," he said.
The 6,400 social services cases they have open now is 33 percent more than four years ago. While his staff was increased by two last year to about 20 staffers who handle applications, he said they logged 1,100 hours of overtime.
"Could I have extra staff? It would certainly not hurt," he said.
One long-term solution could be on the horizon. Rice is among 12 counties discussing sharing services regionally. If approved by each county, Shaw said, it wouldn't take effect for three to four years.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @kellystrib
If you missed Sunday's Whistleblower column, here it is. To add to the conversation, go to the original article.
Two years ago, Saeed Kiblawi opened a hookah lounge in St. Anthony where customers can puff on pipes to sample his Middle Eastern-style tobacco. He applied for a tobacco license with the city, which gave it to him on the condition he upgrade the ventilation in the strip mall space he rents for Flamezz Hookah Lounge.
Yet, city leaders in St. Anthony say they didn't know people would actually be smoking inside, and have now taken Kib- lawi to court to stop people from lighting up.
"We're not trying to get rid of his business; we're trying to get rid of smoking," Council Member Hal Gray said. "We don't allow smoking in bars or any of those establishments, so ... we didn't feel that was reasonable to make any exception in St. Anthony."
Council Member Jim Roth admitted that the city could have been more explicit about its mixed feelings toward Flamezz, but he blames Kiblawi for opening the lounge before the council decided how to deal with hookahs.
To Kiblawi, 32, who moved here from Lebanon 17 years ago, his yearlong battle over his hookah store comes after he's spent about $40,000 on a ventilation system and $150,000 on renovations -- only to have the City Council pass an ordinance that now effectively snuffs out his business.
"I did everything you asked for -- why now you change your mind?" he said.
While state law prohibits smoking indoors, local hookah lounges have typically relied on a provision that allows sampling of tobacco in stores that sell it; cities, however, can outlaw it. In Roseville, the issue came up this month after Kiblawi inquired about relocating his business there; as a result, the City Council also banned tobacco sampling.
In April 2010, when Kiblawi applied for a license in St. Anthony, it was granted with the condition that he install a ventilation system. In June 2010, the council approved the license, but later that same meeting, council members passed a moratorium on issuing more tobacco licenses.
"We didn't know what a hookah was," Roth said.
Once the city realized that Kiblawi's tobacco store would have indoor smoking, Roth said the council decided to explore the issue. Perhaps the City Council could have been more clear with Kiblawi on how the moratorium might affect him, Roth added, but Kiblawi knew the moratorium was in place, so "he had the choice to make a decision to invest in a business that had a moratorium. That's not my fault he didn't [wait]."
Last April, the council unanimously approved prohibiting the sampling of tobacco. Kiblawi has received several misdemeanor citations for violating the ordinance; he hasn't been convicted and is set to appear in Hennepin District Court on March 19. Flamezz is the only St. Anthony business affected by the ordinance.
Kiblawi's attorneys argue the council's "change of heart" by instituting an "overreaching" ordinance is trumped by state law. Attorney Paul Engh added that the council's claim to be unaware of smoking in Flamezz is "illogical -- why insist on a ventilation system?"
Attorney Eric Brever said hookah isn't well-understood in the suburban community, calling the city's move "a real bait-and-switch kind of thing."
Both Roth and Gray say Kiblawi can still sell tobacco products. However, Kiblawi said the sampling ban will put him out of business. Like most hookah stores, a majority of his revenue comes from customers paying to smoke one of the dozens of flavored tobacco he sells.
"To survive, we can't do it in [selling] tobacco products only," he said, and if his business is shut down, "I'm screwed."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib
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