Plant manager Lee Ledford is waiting for a judge to decide whether Eureka Township has the power to shut down his employer, Country Stone and Soil of Minnesota, over an ordinance dispute.

"A lot of families would suffer from it," Ledford, 47, of Afton, said last week.

It's a dispute that signifies the continuing encroachment of suburban development on rural townships, where residents and officials often want to keep new businesses and traffic out.

At issue in this township of about 1,500, located east of Interstate 35 just south of Lakeville, is whether the business grew into something bigger than township officials expected when they gave Country Stone an exemption from its zoning rules, which allow only agriculture and horticulture businesses.

In recent years, the company, which bags decorative stone, soils and colored mulches, drew complaints from a neighboring family that owns big tracts of land. It was upset about Country Stones' trucks and its outside storage of heavy equipment and thousands of bags of product on pallets.

One of the chief complainants, Nancy Sauber, served on the planning commission and later was elected to the town board. Since then, she and the other supervisors voted to sue. Sauber declined to comment on the situation, citing the pending litigation.

The business says that the township was always aware of its plans and that it even approved the addition of a production line that kept the business from operating past 7 p.m.

At stake is the company's $2 million investment, as well as the jobs of as many as 22 people at Country Stone and its related business, MetroWood, including Ledford.

"I'm a single dad with a 15-year-old son, and I sit here every day and wonder what's going to happen," he said. "You hate it, but there's nothing we can do until the ruling. You hope and pray every day that it goes the right way."

Dakota County District Judge Timothy McManus said he expects to decide in coming weeks if he will grant Eureka Township an injunction.

Such zoning issues can be contentious for many townships on the fringes of bigger Minnesota cities. Some are struggling to control their zoning ordinances or are changing from farming townships to those with fewer farms and more homes and businesses.

Other townships that border cities, such as a handful around Rochester in Olmsted County, have also been facing pressure from bigger nearby cities that want to annex them, said Gary Pederson, vice president of the Minnesota Association of Townships. He's also a zoning expert for 14 townships in Olmsted County.

Lothar Wolter Jr., clerk of Young America Township in Carver County and longtime director for the Minnesota Association of Townships, said he and others hope to keep their township near Chaska zoned for agriculture.

That township's biggest problems involve landscapers who set up shop and then use many trucks, he said.

Unexpected growth

Jeff Otto, chairman of the Eureka town board, said it's right to stop a firm that mushroomed without local officials knowing. But County Stone owners say they have done everything requested by the township and more.

In 2006, local landscaper John Friedges began leasing his property to Country Stone to continue operating a landscape supply business. Ron Bjustrom, majority owner of the plant, testified in court this month that all its plans had been presented to the board.

After complaints started, the company stopped sending trucks on a road passing Sauber's house and reduced the number of dump trucks used by 75 percent, Ledford said.

But there's contention over Friedges' partnership with Illinois-based Country Stone, which has 11 sites in six states.

"What the town didn't know is the involvement of Country Stone and the expansion that were to going to come," said Trevor Oliver, an attorney representing the township. "Country Stone works with dirt and wood chips but still does different things. It is a regional supplier for big chains. This was not expressed to the board."

Some fear that if the township wins its case against Country Stone, other businesses will be threatened.

"If they can shut him down, they can shut down every business in Eureka Township," said Charles (Butch) Hansen, head of a local business group.

Otto said that's not true; he said the township is actually considering whether to create its first commercial zones.

A sampling of neighbors closest to the plant say they don't find it noisy or disruptive at all.

"Well, you see trucks go by, but we pretty much mind our own business," said Cindy Hall, owner of a dairy farm across the street from the plant. "We have cattle," she said. "They can smell."

Timothy and Cindy Murphy live closer to Country Stone than Sauber does, and the Murphys said they have no problems with the company. They question why the township is spending taxpayer money to "single out" one business.

"We're on the side of Country Stone," Tim Murphy said. "They have a right to be there."

Legal expenses are approaching $50,000 for the township, and triple that for Country Stone.

"There needs to be a provision to allow business in this area," Murphy said. "They're on the fringe of the Twin Cities. And if Country Stone is being subjected to the scrutiny because they're visible, the other businesses that are invisible will need to be, too."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017