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Denial of biomass permit is upheld by planners

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Planning Commission has upheld its previous denial of a conditional use permit for a biomass pelletizing plant in northeast Willmar.

The City Council on June 4 had asked the Planning Commission to reconsider its denial of the permit sought by Earth Tech Energy of Shoreview for the proposed biomass plant.

The commission's decision is final, said Bruce Peterson, director of planning and development services. According to the city attorney, the final decision rests with the Planning Co-mmission, Peterson said.

He said city ordinance does not give the council's authority to overturn the commission's denial of a conditional use permit.

The commission reaffirmed its decision Wednesday night before nearly 50 people representing a majority of City Council members and economic development representatives who supported the plant, and residents, other business interests and Willmar School District representatives who oppose the plant at that that site.

The commission first voted May 23 to deny Earth Tech's request for the permit to operate the plant on a portion of 55 acres of land located between Civic Center Drive and the Trunk Highway 23/71 Bypass. The company said it preferred that site because it has access to a Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad spur for product shipments and nearby highways.

The commission reaffirmed its previous finding that the conditional use permit should be denied because the proposed use was inconsistent with goals and policies of the comprehensive plan.

The commission said the use would impede residential development to the west.

Also, the commission said adequate utilities could not be provided because Earth Tech proposed using a septic sewage treatment system instead of connecting to the city sewer service.

Even though the Planning Commission denied the permit for industrial use, the commission earlier approved annexing the land for industrial use. The industrial zoning was considered to be compatible with the city's comprehensive land use plan.

The biomass plant was discussed when the annexation was approved, but no formal request had been filed with the city. The land had been designed as industrial reserve by the city on Dec. 21, 1989, said Peterson.

Planning Commission Chair Audrey Nelsen explained why the permit was denied even through the annexation for industrial use was approved.

"We were instructed to treat (annexation) as a separate issue. At that point in time what was presented to us was annexation of the land and the request for it to be zoned industrial,'' she said. "So that process takes place first of all.''

The second piece came with the conditional use permit and what would be put on the land, she said.

"As the process developed, it's hard to say that those two weren't connected or perhaps should be connected, but the way the laws are reading they are two separate items to deal with,'' she said.

Nelsen thinks the commission looked at access, how traffic would be controlled, and future uses. She said the commission did not know how a second access would be provided.

The commission also considered information from neighbors and landowners, the MinnWest Campus and high school, and felt industrial reserve was not the best use of that land.

She said the project would be excellent for the community and she hoped another spot could be found. She couldn't say if any industrial use at the Civic Center Drive site would be appropriate. Nelsen said the land would be rezoned.

Nelsen said the Planning Commission has made some tough decisions as the city grows and becomes more diverse.

"We feel strongly that we need to look at what's best for the future of our city,'' said Nelsen.

The pelletizing plant is opposed by homeowners and a housing developer who feels the plant would decrease property values.

The proposal is was also opposed by MinnWest Technology Campus, which has concerns about dust and future development; and by the Willmar School District, which raised safety concerns about conflicts between truck traffic serving the biomass plant and traffic going to and from the high school, located on Civic Center Drive north of the proposed site.

Opponents are asking the city and Earth Tech to consider a site owned by Richard Heidecker north of the Industrial Park in west Willmar. The land has an easement that allows connection to a rail spur that crosses U.S. Highway 12 to the Industrial Park.

Supporters: Heidecker site has challenges

Gregg Mast, Earth Tech chief executive officer, said he was disappointed with the commission's decision and said it was based on emotion rather than findings of fact.

Mast told the Tribune his company has invested "an enormous amount of time and energy and capital'' into the proposed site.

Although the Heidecker property is a potential option, Mast said an initial assessment indicated the cost of preparing the Heidecker site would be more significant compared with the preferred site. He said the cost has yet to be determined.

Also, Mast said the interpretation he received from the railroad was that the level of service on the spur at the Heidecker site "is going to be just a bit more of a challenge'' because the plant would share service and would have to work out scheduling conflicts with two other businesses.

"That's not to say that it's not a possibility,'' said Mast. "We haven't ruled it out completely, but there are certainly valid reasons why we've chosen the site that we have.''

Regarding the school's concern about traffic safety, Mast said Civic Center Drive has been deemed able to handle the additional traffic, which he said could potentially be one truck per hour spread out over 24 hours a day, "and it's not even actually one truck per hour.'' He said the net impact was only a 1 percent increase in total traffic.

Mast said Earth Tech was "absolutely open'' to negotiating solutions, including "some sort of speed zone'' for certain times.

"We have engaged in some private conversation with a member of the school board and the MinnWest Campus, and from our perspective we're open to try to come up with some solutions that will benefit everyone,'' Mast said. "At this point, there has not been any dialogue, unfortunately.''

Steve Renquist, executive directior of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, said the city has an opportunity to grow its industrial and job base, particularly in the area of renewable resources.

Renquist, whose job involves promoting economic development, said Earth Tech favored the Civic Center Drive site after the company was shown other sites with railroad access in Kandiyohi, Pennock, and Raymond and next to the Bushmills Ethanol plant near Atwater.

Renquist said he thinks the Masts would rather "get along than be confrontational.'' He thinks a well-kept industrial property with nicely designed buildings with uniform setback is a sign of a progressive and growing community.

The plant would be completed contained with a dust-collection system and would produce from 69,000 tons the first year to 200,000 tons by the third year of pellets from plant material for energy purposes.

Opponents: Plant would harm property values

The proposed plant would be visible from the Trentwood residential area being developed by Warren Erickson.

Trentwood is located about a quarter of a mile southwest of the proposed plant site on Lakeland Drive. The development has 105 lots, of which 40 are for single-family homes, 60 are for twin homes, and five along Lakeland Drive for commercial use.

Erickson estimates his potential investment at $20 million, based on an average selling price of about $200,000 per house. He's concerned customers may not want to buy one of his houses, and he's concerned about noise and vibration from the nearby rail spur.

Erickson and other residential neighbors are concerned about the industrial use affecting property values and adding truck traffic.

Erickson said he did not research the zoning of nearby property when he started developing Trentwood.

MinnWest officials oppose the location of the business, but not its operation. During a Planning Commission hearing May 23, MinnWest spokesman Steve Salzer said the campus has concerns about dust, storage of materials and future development. He said the pellet business could have a negative impact on the campus.

Willmar School Board members spoke against the plant at their meeting Monday night. Their main concern is for the safety of students driving to and from the Senior High School.

Superintendent Kathy Leedom sent a letter Monday to Planning Commission and City Council members, asking them to not approve a permit for an industrial operation near the high school and to consider an alternative site.

The alternative site opponents are asking the city and Earth Tech to consider is land owned by Heidecker. Heidecker told Leedom about the availability of the site after he heard Leedom tell the City Council last week that she believes industrial operations should be channeled to the Industrial Park.