Dust is flying over the Scandia City Council's apparent shunning of a citizen planning group that had opposed reopening a sand and gravel mine within a stone's throw of the St. Croix River.
"I believe I echo the reaction of many in your community in labeling your January 15 deliberations as outrageous," Peter Gove of the St. Croix River Association wrote to City Council members recently. "There is evidence aplenty to invite reversal in a court of law should you approve this permit. Do not underestimate the potential for a coalition of local, regional and national citizen organizations to seek that review."
The latest drama in Scandia pivots on the City Council's 4-1 vote determining that Tiller Corporation's original permit application, filed in 2008, complies with the city's 2020 comprehensive plan. That action contradicts the city's Planning Commission recommendation -- based on the newer 2030 plan after five meetings on the issue -- to deny Tiller's application. It also essentially gives Tiller new hope after considerable opposition from residents and St. Croix River conservationists.
"It's probably the most important issue before the city at this time and probably the most important issue the city has dealt with in recent history," said City Administrator Kristina Handt, who has fielded several complaints in the wake of the City Council vote.
"There have been a number of people who are upset. These are people who have been pretty clear from the get-go in supporting denial."
The Planning Commission had decided the proposed project wouldn't comply with the city's newer 2030 plan, which wouldn't allow mining at the site and requires in part that it "promote and enhance the general public welfare and will not be detrimental to or endanger the public health, safety, morals or comfort." The commission also said the code wouldn't allow damage to property values and scenic views.
In response, Tiller has argued that the project will benefit Scandia because of land reclamation it will do once mining of a 1 million tons of sand and gravel is completed. Tiller representative Mike Caron has described the abandoned pit, which closed in the 1980s, as a "moonscape" terrain.
Attorney Gregory Korstad, in a letter to the City Council, said the site "as it sits today is predominantly bare, exposed sand and gravel, remnants of a mining operation conducted in a prior era before modern environmentally sensitive mining practices became the norm. The irregular landforms present today are neither aesthetically pleasing nor ecologically functional."
Conservationists, including the National Park Service, have opposed the project on grounds that mining near the bluffs of the federally protected St. Croix National Scenic Riverway would inflict machine noise on the river's serenity and threaten a possible spill of contaminated water into the river.
Another Tiller operation, in Grantsburg, Wis., did that last year. The Maple Grove company had failed to build an adequate berm to contain sand washing and was subject to enforcement actions in Wisconsin.
And just last week, Tiller was fined $5,000 by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for starting a sand-processing operation in North Branch without securing required air quality permits.
Unlike those mines, the Scandia permit wouldn't allow Tiller to extract the more profitable and controversial ultra-fine "fracking" sand used in oil drilling. Tiller wouldn't process sand and gravel at the Scandia site, just east of the Hwy. 97 intersection with Hwy. 95, but haul it to another Tiller site west of Scandia.
Dump trucks would make hundreds of trips a day through the city of about 4,000 residents, but Tiller has said it would reduce truck traffic from other mines accordingly.
Gove, in his letter to the City Council, asked for a public forum for "why you are prepared to grant this permit in spite of overwhelming testimony you received in opposition to this project."
The river group, of which Gove is chairman of the board, is an advocacy organization in the St. Croix watershed.
Council Members Sally Swanson, Dan Lee, Jim Schneider and Mayor Randall Simonson voted to accept that the Tiller proposal is compliant with the city's 2020 plan. Chris Ness opposed.
The City Council at the Jan. 15 meeting directed Handt and her staff to prepare an approval resolution that contains more than 90 conditions that Tiller would have to meet.
"Sometimes democracy is messy," Handt said last week. "I hope once this Tiller issue is resolved that people will continue to be involved in their local government."
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles