DEERWOOD — In dramatic fashion Monday night at the Deerwood City Council meeting, a manufacturer withdrew a contested variance moments before a council vote on a resident-fueled appeal.
Jerry Bowman, Magnum Machining owner, spoke from the gallery at Monday’s meeting, withdrawing the variance request and announcing the building project would go forward without it.
Bowman said he would follow existing setbacks, meaning an expansion would be 25 feet from the property line, and handle water in onsite ponds, and meet noise and light ordinances.
“But I will build my building,” he said, adding construction is expected the first week in June.
One of Magnum Machining’s critics, Ronald Hunt, said he was not against the variance but wanted to address other issues. Hunt sent a letter to the city council asking the variance be denied if a list of conditions wasn’t met.
The issue, which has been contentious between individual parties, had the city council trying to balance plans that would add manufacturing jobs with some neighbors’ concerns about living next to the facility. They expressed concern about noise, lighting, additional traffic, stormwater and the health of Reno Lake.
The public hearing was occasionally testy with Bowman and Ron Hunt speaking directly to each other before Mayor Michael Aulie reminded them to address the council.
The public discussion had a number of accusations citing unnamed sources, which preceded the back and forth between Bowman and Hunt and prompted city officials to temper the tone.
At issue was a rear-yard setback for Magnum Machining. When the business began in the Business and Industry Zoning District off Highway 6 in 1997-98, the setback from a neighboring property was 10 feet. The neighboring property in question is also in the business and industry zone with the setback next to a driveway. Magnum Machining requested and received a variance from the Deerwood Planning Commission.
In seeking the variance, Magnum Machining said it planned to put an additional 18,000 square feet on the nearly 49,000-square-foot plant. Deerwood’s population is 532. Magnum Machining employs 76 and Bowman said the expansion would mean another 30 to 40 jobs.
In a March letter to the council, Lisa and Ron Hunt’s list of concerns included noise, noxious odors, floodlight glare, fumes and gases. The couple stated they wanted violations addressed and if the company wasn’t willing to address this or reach an amicable solution, the variance should be denied.
An additional wrinkle for the city was a 2010 Minnesota Supreme Court decision finding cities must meet a higher standard in granting a variance — namely an undue hardship. Deerwood’s legal advisers said the expansion request did not meet that test.
Options for the city included going through a public hearing process to change its ordinance to potentially allow existing businesses to expand following the old setback. But any change would apply to any business, not just Magnum Machining. Aulie said a legislative change in response to the court ruling is expected to give cities more room to make decisions but it has not cleared the Legislature yet.
Monday night’s discussion covered considerable ground.
Lisa Hunt, a business owner who also works as a human resources consultant, said she was uncomfortable coming before the council.
“I feel like we are two cows standing on a railroad track and a locomotive is charging full steam down on us down the mountain side,” Lisa Hunt said. “The locomotive I’m referring to is the entire project that has already come this far.”
She said Magnum Machining and its construction firm, Nor-Son, were coming for the variance at the 11th hour. She likened the variance to letting a business break existing laws there to protect the people and the environment.
Ron Hunt used a smartphone to show the council photos and video he recorded by the plant. He said he was concerned for open windows allowing noise and about runoff traveling through a culvert to Reno Lake. He requested an environmental assessment worksheet saying it was a reasonable and asked for time to collect signatures. He also spoke of existing violations.
When the council pressed him for specifics, he noted the floodlights, noise exceeding the allowable decibel levels and undefined odors. City officials who took part in an onsite visit said they didn’t find noxious fumes.
Aulie said a surprise Minnesota Pollution Control Agency visit found the air quality not to be an issue. In response to the light and noise issues, Magnum Machining removed bulbs in floodlights extending beyond its property line and made changes to reduce the noise level below permissible standards.
When Ron Hunt started talking about other issues he heard about the plant from unnamed sources, Bowman objected from the audience.
“I’m about done,” he said. “It’s one accusation after another.”
While Ron Hunt kept talking about toxic issues, Aulie said nothing has been found and until the expansion plans came up no complaints were heard. When Ron Hunt talked about concerns for runoff and the culvert leading to shallow Reno Lake, Bowman said the culvert wasn’t even on his property yet he was getting blamed for it.
“I’m not blaming you, Jerry,” Ron Hunt said.
Lloyd Jenkins, a neighboring resident, said he’s been hearing a lot of different stories about past variances and previous violations, saying the project sounded like putting a size 12 foot into a size nine shoe and he wondered when a council would say no.
Council members noted Magnum Machining, which is on 5.8 acres, never sought a variance before, wasn’t involved in a previous controversy and was within its setbacks. Neighbor Marv Schoenike said he has neither heard or smelled anything such as the Hunts described and part of the issue with Reno Lake is from sewer runoff.
Regarding the runoff issue, Steve Rose, senior architect at Nor-Son, said Westwood Professional Services was hired to do a stormwater plan to handle a 10-year-storm situation onsite.
Aulie said the council was trying to protect the rights of residents and the business owner, and was also concerned about stormwater runoff and wastewater. Council member Colleen Abear noted with comments from Bowman working with the neighborhood and after hearing the Hunts are pro-business, she felt positive things could work. Hunt is a member of the planning commission.
The council, with members Debby Leonard, Tom Nixon, Abear and Aulie, voted to overturn the previously granted variance. Council member Brian Wasszieher was absent. A building permit isn’t expected to be requested until a tax-increment financing district is certified, meaning it isn’t likely before June 7.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.