Breanna Baker and Mason Libke had just found the house they wanted to buy when the neighborhood got something new: a massive earthen berm across the street that blocked the horizon. They knew about the local mine behind the berm, but they and others in Grey Cloud Island Township didn't know what to make of it.

Everyone got their answer this fall. The mine operator, Aggregate Industries Inc., wants to expand its sand, gravel and rock operation closer to homes and roads in an area where it has long coexisted with homeowners.

The company's request for a variance will go before the three-member Town Board for approval next week. It has set off a firestorm of protest from residents who say they had no warning and will have difficulty voicing their opposition due to COVID restrictions.

"We're all kind of upset that [the berm] is there in the first place," said Baker, "and now that the plans are to get even closer, I think everyone's kind of hit their breaking point."

The dispute is the latest to arise in the forested riverside community downriver from St. Paul, where residents have grown wary of township leaders since they sold the Town Hall to Aggregate Industries in April despite opposition. For some, it was a reminder of the clout that decades-old mining operations have wielded there.

The mining company's request for the variance came in a letter from Patty Bestler, the company's environmental and land manager as well as a member of the township's planning commission. In response to a request to Bestler for comment for this story, a company spokesperson sent an e-mail saying that she has been transparent and recuses herself from Aggregate Industries matters that come before the commission.

"Aggregate Industries has been a longstanding member of the Grey Cloud Island Township community, and we're committed to working with the Township and residents," said Stephanie Sulcer of LafargeHolcim, the United Kingdom-based parent of Aggregate Industries.

Sulcer said the company's request would allow them to mine closer to County Road 75, the main north-south roadway through the township. She said the mining would occur on land that Aggregate Industries owns.

A petition against the mine expansion has 150 signatures so far, but it will come down to the three men who sit on the Town Board. Of the three, Dick Adams and Paul Schoenecker did not return calls seeking comment, and Raymond Kaiser said it would be inappropriate for him to share his opinion of the variance request before the Dec. 3 meeting.

"I don't think it would be fair to give any indication of what way people are leaning," said Kaiser, adding that the company's request was a surprise.

Building interest in the vote is the fact that both Adams and Kaiser soon will be replaced by board members who oppose the mine expansion.

Adams, the board chairman who did not seek re-election, will be succeeded in January by Dan Ohmann, one of the residents asking the board to vote against expansion. Kaiser lost to Richard Polta, who strongly opposes expansion, in a coin toss after each got 84 votes in this year's election.

Longtime neighbors

Resident Tom Bell said the township was up in arms in the 1970s when the Shiely family, which then owned the mine, wanted to expand it. He said a public hearing had to be held over two days to accommodate everyone who wanted to speak, and a graduate student wrote a thesis on the standoff with the mining company.

Bell, who was serving on the Town Board at the time, said board members ultimately denied the variance. Today, he said, fewer people go to board meetings.

"Agendas are not necessarily widely read," Bell said. "It's a bad time, too, with the pandemic going. You can't really put more than about 10 people in our Town Hall."

Most township residents learned of the company's bid to expand from Ted Ries, who recently bought a riverfront house on 15 acres just north of Aggregate Industries' property. It was built by the founder of the mine, and he discovered an agreement in the title that said the company could mine closer to the house than the township's 500-foot ordinance allows.

Before he closed on the house, Ries called Adams to learn more about the township's setbacks. He said he was told that the ordinance forbids mining operations within 500 feet of his property line.

It wasn't until this fall, months after moving in, that Ries saw the company's plans to mine much closer. He said Adams told him he had made a mistake, that no one knew the request to expand was coming and then seemed to indicate he would likely approve the company's request.

Ries also spoke to Kaiser, who reminded him that the township benefits when the mine does well due to a tonnage tax. He said the township gets 3 cents per ton of material excavated, amounting to about $21,000 last year.

Catching people by surprise

The expansion plans are only the latest controversy in Grey Cloud Island Township. Things got off to a rocky start this year when Aggregate Industries purchased the township's Town Hall, adjacent to an area the mining company plans to excavate.

The sale closed in April for $300,000 along with an agreement that the company would turn over 2 to 3 acres nearby for a new Town Hall. The township will lease the current Town Hall from Aggregate Industries for up to five years, with a three-year extension, while planning for a new facility. The mining company also agreed to turn over the $250,000 principal of a fund started by the Shiely family for township purposes.

But nothing about the deal seemed right to resident Lynn Utecht, a former mining employee who lives near the Town Hall. She said the land should be worth millions based on the value of the rock buried below. "They really got ripped off," she said.

An appraisal of the property never was done, Town Clerk Cheryl McColley said Tuesday. She said a board member tried to do an appraisal himself to include the value of whatever lies beneath Town Hall but it was too complicated. Land records on file with Washington County gave a valuation of $79,400 for the Town Hall, and that became a baseline for negotiations.

The sale came and went with many town residents opposed to it, said Ries.

The sale seemed to catch people by surprise, he said, whether because the pandemic was making it hard to attend meetings or people weren't paying much attention.

"They feel like they don't know what's going on," he said.