Eureka Township settles zoning spat

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2010 - 5:39 PM

A settlement keeps the township and Country Stone, a mulch company, out of court. It also preserves jobs.

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Lee Ledford of Country Stone stood on top of a berm that surrounds the plant and thousands of bags of mulch and dirt that are stacked neatly on rows of pallets. A neighboring family complained about the business, and the township sued to shut it down.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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A settlement has been reached in a lawsuit brought by Eureka Township against a mulch company in a zoning dispute that worried many local business owners.

Under the agreement, Country Stone and Soil of Minnesota will get a permit to continue operations, and a trial was averted in Dakota County District Court, said Trevor Oliver, an attorney for the township.

The case was symbolic of the continuing encroachment of suburban development on rural townships, where residents and officials often want to keep new businesses and traffic out. Some local business owners had said they feared that if the township won, other businesses might be shut down.

"We came to an agreement that everyone's happy with, and hopefully we can live with -- without spending any more money," said Brian Budenski, town board chairman. Budenski also said he was glad that nobody would lose their jobs over the matter.

Up to 16 jobs had been at stake at Country Stone and its related business, Metro Wood Recycling, which has grinding yards in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The town board spent about $50,000 in legal costs. The company spent triple that amount, attorneys said.

Without the settlement, a judge would have decided whether Eureka Township has the power to shut down Country Stone over the ordinance dispute.

The settlement agreement is the equivalent of a permit that specifies the rules and parameters the company must work under, replacing a "nebulous" situation with vague rules, said Chris Penwell, attorney for Country Stone.

"It gives both sides some certainty going forward," he said.

The agreement spells out the days and hours when the business may operate. It also requires landscaping that will help reduce the visibility of materials that the company stores outside. And it details requirements for the company to report about its activities to the township, Penwell said.

Who knew what, and when?

At issue in this township of about 1,500, located east of Interstate 35 and just south of Lakeville, was whether the business grew into something bigger than township officials expected when they exempted Country Stone from zoning rules that allowed only agriculture and horticulture businesses.

Country Stone, which bags decorative stone, soils and colored mulches, had drawn complaints from a neighbor upset about big trucks and outside storage of heavy equipment, along with thousands of bags of product stacked on pallets.

Country Stone officials said the township was always aware of the company's plans, and that the township had even approved the addition of a production line that kept the business from operating past 7 p.m. That was a $2 million investment.

"I'm glad to get it behind us," Lee Ledford, operations manager for Metro Wood and Country Stone, said last week. "It was kind of a rough road."

Site leased from landscaper

In 2006, landscaper John Friedges began leasing the site to Illinois-based Country Stone. At a pretrial hearing, Ron Bjustrom, majority owner of the Country Stone plant, testified that the company's plans had been presented to the board. However, Oliver argued that the town hadn't known about the involvement of Country Stone and that the expansion was coming.

Last Friday, plant manager Brian Mayer picked up a copy of the settlement agreement, and also a copy of an engineering and survey plan that he said will help improve outdoor aesthetics at the plant. Mayer said his responsibility is to make sure that the plant adheres to the agreement with the town.

"The township is one of my customers, too," Mayer said. "I'm going to keep it just as happy as my regular customers."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017

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