Weeks of classic grass-roots organizing paid off this month in tiny Ortonville Township, when the board of supervisors voted to delay a proposed gravel pit that would destroy some of the stunning granite formations and rare ball cactuses near the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

But the next time a massive project like that comes to the western Minnesota township -- or any other local government -- the community might not get the same chance. A bill moving through the Legislature would weaken the power of local citizens to delay controversial projects -- cellphone towers, frac sand mines, shopping centers, feedlots, garbage burners, even a cougar farm that was once proposed by a creative entrepreneur.

Under the proposal, which will be heard in committee Wednesday, after a local government accepts a permit application, it would have just 30 days to decide on a delay. And, contrary to current law, a moratorium would require a two-thirds majority vote.

At the root of the debate is an age-old tension between the rights of business and the rights of neighbors within the unwieldy democratic process. Proponents of the new law, primarily Twin Cities builders, say developers who have spent tens of thousands of dollars planning a project deserve to have those investments protected from politically arbitrary decisions by government officials.

"It happens regularly," said James Vagle, public policy director for the Building Association of the Twin Cities, which has been trying to get the law through the Legislature for several years. "We were following all the rules ... and a project gets stymied."

Opponents say a month is not nearly enough time for local governments and, more important, for citizens to understand or react to the implications of a complicated new project that might profoundly alter the destiny of a community.

"This law would make it impossible, or very difficult, to enact an effective moratorium," said Bobby King of the Land Stewardship Project, an advocacy group that works with local communities on land use.

Sand mine moratoriums

Current state law requires local governments to say yes or no to a development within 60 days of accepting an application. But for decades, townships, cities and counties have also had the right to delay that decision by adopting a moratorium of up to a year.

That gives citizens and local leaders time to consider the potential impact on residents, the environment and the local economy. It also gives them time to adapt land-use plans and zoning laws for developments -- like a cougar farm -- that they never anticipated.

The Land Stewardship Project has repeatedly helped communities use their moratorium power to control the size and placement of large animal feedlots and other agricultural projects. In the past year, half a dozen counties and townships have passed moratoriums on big frac sand mines that could change the landscape of southeast Minnesota.

"It's very different when you are hit by something that is unprecedented," said Kristen Eide-Tollefson, a planning commissioner for Florence Township south of Red Wing, which recently passed a sand mining moratorium. Weakening the current law would create "real detriments to the rights of a community to defend its values," she said.

But those who support the new law say the power is too often abused. Officials from the building association said their concerns are primarily related to urban projects.

Local governments have used delays to unexpectedly derail projects small and large, from a bank's drive-through teller lane to a shopping mall that was in the works for years.

"We follow all the rules, we think we are doing the right thing, and suddenly a moratorium gets slapped onto a project," Vagle said. "That can be a costly exercise for a builder."

On Wednesday a legislative committee will consider a compromise, giving local governments the 30-day window to consider a delay on a pending project.

As a result, the League of Minnesota Cities, the Association of Minnesota Counties and the Minnesota Association of Townships have dropped their opposition, and officials say it has a good chance of passing.

Officials of those organizations, however, still worry that if the bill passes, governments and citizens will have to move extraordinarily fast to slow controversial projects.

But "everyone has a right to use their property in a certain way," said Patrick Hynes, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities. "Zoning and land use regulation is largely about trying to balance that."

Public hearing

That balancing act has been underway for months in Big Stone County. Since 2006, a North Dakota company has been working with Big Stone County officials on a 102-acre granite quarry in Ortonville Township along the Minnesota River, adjacent to the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. The permit application was submitted to Big Stone County just before Christmas, and the first public hearing was held Jan. 5.

Seventy-six people turned up -- an extraordinary number for the small community, said Duane Ninneman, a resident who's been fighting the project. But until one of their group stumbled onto the state law allowing moratoriums, local residents "thought all they could do was protest," he said.

On Feb. 8, after opponents scrambled to find an attorney and organize area residents, the three-member township board adopted a moratorium. Now, regardless of what the county decides to do, the quarry company will also have to work with the township.

But if the new bill becomes law, their hands would be tied the next time because the county will control the decision.

"It's about a community saying we want to take control," said Paul Blackburn, the attorney who advised Ortonville Township. "That's why zoning came into being in the first place."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394