Meeting gets heated in Verona
Three people voted to repeal Verona Township’s 17-year-old zoning ordinance on Monday.
And a whole lot more than three people stood against them.
Huntley’s Community Covenant Church was the site of a public hearing held by the township board last week, and in a clash of opinions that had citizens clamoring for democracy and at least one of them escorted from the building, local residents saw livestock operation restrictions loosened for the first time since 1999.
“The reason for supporting it is pretty simple,” said Doug Hill, one of three Verona Township board members who approved the change. “Part of our job is to promote small business and make it grow, and it’s disconcerting that our grain and livestock farmers are at odds.”
And people sure were at odds on Monday night.
So much so, in fact, that not only Hill, but also fellow township supervisors Neal Mensing and Darwin Olson, were repeatedly accused of letting biased agendas influence their vote.
When the unanimous 3-0 vote was passed, putting Faribault County back in charge of the township’s zoning restrictions, snickers of disgust echoed through the public crowd of more than 50.
“I?think the township ordinance served its purpose, and it’s time to move on,” Mensing said. “The town board has determined the regulation is no longer in the town’s best interest.”
Most of the nearly 20 citizens who addressed the board Monday night, however, begged to differ.
One of those citizens, Maxine Durkee, presented the township supervisors with a petition to uphold the debated Ordinance 98-1, created to more strictly regulate the size and location of livestock operations in the area.
“We had 184 residents sign to keep the current ordinance,” Durkee said. “That percent is way more than a majority of those in the township.”
Board clerk Nina Patten responded to Durkee by suggesting that Verona Township’s population is actually larger than previously announced, but Durkee’s point had already gotten across, eliciting comments of support from the crowd.
“And from talking to some of those who didn’t sign the petition, they didn’t because they were afraid of retaliation,” Durkee added. “Retaliation has already happened.”
Neither Durkee nor other citizens in attendance publicly described what kind of retaliation has allegedly occurred. But the crowd’s consensus sentiment one of disdain for a less restrictive ordinance rang louder as the night went on.
“I hope that everyone read the Faribault County Register about what’s going on in Dunbar Township,” Durkee said. “They do not have the protection that we do.”
Alluding to a recent campaign by Dunbar residents, who pleaded in September for Faribault County commissioners not to permit construction of a local hog facility, Durkee said the township’s longstanding ordinance was one of the few barriers to what many citizens consider adverse effects of livestock operations.
Bob Kesselring Jr., who attended the meeting with his father, a local resident, felt the same way.
“This is going to bring class action lawsuits,” he said. “You’re inviting health problems, worse air quality, and that’s cruelty for people who don’t work with hogs.”
Melissa Diegnau, an instructor at Riverland Community College in Austin, wondered aloud why the board simply could not follow the rules it set for itself in 1999, let alone acknowledge the preference of the people it serves.
“Why is this not dead?” she said of the proposed repeal, which first drew public opposition in June 2015. “It’s causing a divide in our small township and community.”
Some, however, saw the repeal not as a dividing decision, but rather one that promotes local growth, as Hill explained during the evening’s long-awaited vote.
“This is an agricultural community,” said Andrew Bell, a young farmer in the area. “Some of the nation’s most fertile soil is sitting in our backyard, and under Faribault County guidelines, it’s all up to the landowner anyway.”
Makayla Nepp, seated in the front row of the crowded hearing room, suggested that more residents should be fighting for next-generation entrepreneurs like Bell, not the restrictions that would hold him back.
“This is Huntley, Minnesota,” she said. “I guarantee hogs aren’t going to take up every single space available. Let’s just be a little more realistic and let young people make a living.”
Another man, David Cartwright, agreed, saying that the economic benefits of livestock far outweigh the claims of offensive side effects with which they are associated.
“Petitions are worthless if they don’t have facts,” he said. “Let them go make a living. I don’t know how you can be against that. An assault on the nose? You can’t regulate that stuff.”
Kesselring, donning dark-tinted sunglasses in front of the board, felt the repeal would then be catering to a select group of people in the area.
“By doing this, we’re going to let a few people make money the way they want to make money,” he said. “What about everyone else??It doesn’t work like that.”
In between sentences, Kesselring drew a laugh from the crowd as he shooed away a fly “There’s a fly from the hogs,” he said.
His father, Robert, chimed in as well.
“With the hog barns, there’s just no end to them,” he said, before asking supervisor Darwin Olson not to vote because of alleged impartiality. “Maybe you board members will get a taste of it if they start coming right next to you, too.”
Mensing, who motioned to approve the repeal after just under two hours of public discussion, said it is not as if he wants hog barns or any livestock facilities, for that matter to pop up next door.
But, like Bell and Nepp, he said agriculture is the way of the area.
“And why should we keep enforcing restrictions if the county can do it anyway, just like in other townships?” he asked.
One logical answer, county commissioner and hearing guest Greg Young offered, would be that the people of the township prefer otherwise.
“I think you need to listen to your constituents,” he said. “And if any one of you people has an agenda that’s influencing your decision, you owe it to us to address why.”
Young, who also relayed opposition to the repeal from Mike McNerney, president of the nearby Riverside Town & Country Golf Club, attempted to follow up with another statement later in the meeting but was denied by the board because he had used all five of his allotted minutes to speak.
“He can use my five minutes,” someone shouted from the crowd as Mensing shook his head.
As the vote unfolded, not even the established speaking time limits could withhold public backlash.
Constructive conversation kicked off by local resident Jim Wetzler, who displayed maps of areas affected by ordinance changes quickly eroded into a back-and-forth with the board.
One resident, an apparent lifelong chef, pledged never to cook pork again as a result of the board’s decision.
Meanwhile, talking from his seat in the audience, Kesselring Jr. refused to stop pressing the supervisors on their alleged bias toward the repeal.
“To hell with that,” he said. “Answer the questions like everyone else.”
When the exchanges did not die down, he was asked to leave.
“Move me,” he spouted.
Ultimately, Kesselring Jr. was shown the door by Faribault County chief deputy Scott Adams, and the board got its wish. So, too, did those who stood up for farming those who argued that livestock operations are a benefit to the community, not a threat to it.
But talks of the repeal’s validity stayed open.
With others in the crowd requesting everything from a public ballot-issued vote on the ordeal to the release of economic and environmental impact statements regarding the change, at least a handful of Verona Township residents were not ready to go down without a fight.
“You pledged to serve on behalf of the people,” said Nancy Peterson, a township citizen. “You must give the same due diligence needed for creating this ordinance to undo it. Are you prepared to use due diligence?”
Only time will tell.