Two tough calls on gravel crushing at old airstrip

Jane Howard

For the sake of practicality, the Cook County Planning Commission on May 21 recommended allowing Ulland Brothers to crush gravel on the old airstrip beside Devil’s Track Lake this summer as it reconstructs a 1.4-mile portion of County State Aid Highway 8 (Devil’s Track Road) just west of the airport road. The Planning Commission had a tough decision, because it involved potential financial impacts to either Ulland Brothers or Devil Track Resort/The Landing Restaurant and Bar.

Ulland Brothers offered the low bid for the project. The crushing proposed for the airstrip will involve the rocks underneath the current bituminous, which will be laid down underneath the new road. The bituminous currently on the road will be crushed up on the roadway itself and reused onsite.

The Cook County Planning & Zoning Department sent out 43 letters of notification and heard back from six sets of neighbors who expressed opposition to the potential noise and dust. The gravel crushing project may have seemed like insult added to injury after KGM was unable to finish its project on a nearby section of road last summer because of scheduling changes related to the state government shutdown and sharp gravel laid down in the meantime led to a lot of tires popping on the road.

Devil Track Resort/Landing owner Emily LaVigne was at the meeting and said almost 100 tires were changed in her parking lot last summer. Neighbor Gail Anderson said the people up there had been driving on “a dusty, dirty, tire-busting road” for a year. One neighbor had 12 flat tires, she said. “We are not the ‘not-in-our-back-yard’ kind of people,” she said, but doing this would be like “putting salt on the wound.” She said she was “all about getting the road done” but asked them to find another location for crushing gravel.

LaVigne said she understood that both she and Ulland Brothers had the same goal—to meet customer needs and make money. “I am absolutely for progress,” she said. She indicated that crushing near her business at the height of the summer season as proposed, however, could really cut into her business. “It would impede my business in every way,” she said. “This is the time when I make 80 percent of my income.” She said she couldn’t take a reservation for that time period and allow people to think they would be coming for a quiet, peaceful vacation.

Tim Grahek of Ulland Brothers said they could get the crushing done in two weeks if they could work 12-hour days. LaVigne responded by saying she is selling a 24-hour day. “It just can’t happen,” she said. “I can’t operate my business next to it. …If it affected my business 20 percent, I would not be able to survive the season.”

Greg Gastecki of Edwin E. Thoreson Inc. said, “I do truly believe crushing noise is not that loud.” He indicated that not allowing crushing near a project would result in much higher costs for the county. Ulland Brothers, however, would be held to this bid whether it had to crush its gravel elsewhere and haul it back or not.

LaVigne said she opposed the truck noise as well as the crushing noise. Sherry Baker, owner of Gunflint Pines Resort & Campground, said her own campground guests would not come if they knew there would be construction going on.

Even though a mist will be sprayed during the crushing, Anderson said there would still be dust from the piles themselves and from transporting the gravel. She questioned whether runoff might pollute the lake. Planning & Zoning Administrator Bill Lane said environmental issues would be addressed by a required Minnesota Pollution Control Agency permit as well as the conditions his department was recommending for the requested Interim Use Permit.

Ryan Swanson of Ulland Brothers said he always tries to find the site closest to the job for gravel operations. It’s more environmentally friendly because it uses less truck fuel, he said. LaVigne said that while trucking the gravel farther would cost Ulland money, crushing on the airstrip would cost her money.

Planning Commissioner Jerry Hiniker said road projects do have a lot of impact, but the end result is good. “It’s a complicated situation,” he said.

The Planning Commission discussed with the local residents possible options including working longer days for a shorter period of time and starting the work earlier in the summer. Ulland Brothers cannot start the project, however, until CenturyLink is done with a project along the road.

LaVigne said if Ulland had asked her about providing lodging and food for their employees and doing the work earlier in the summer, she wouldn’t be opposing the operation. Tim Grahek said they did approach her and she said she was 90 percent full and couldn’t accommodate Ulland employees. LaVigne said that was in regard to occupancy in the middle of the summer.

“I am absolutely not ‘anti’ the project,” said LaVigne. “I am opposed to it being in my direct line of sight.”

Tim Grahek suggested that they consider using the east end of the runway instead of the west and build a berm between the crushing operation and the neighbors. Planning & Zoning Director Tim Nelson said if they chose a different site, they would have to go through another public hearing process, which would delay the project.

John Barton made a motion to allow gravel crushing on the east end of the runway with a berm of stockpiled gravel between the operation and the neighboring business and homes. Operations would be allowed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dave Tuttle seconded the motion, saying the operation should start as early in the summer as possible —“during black fly season.” Barton accepted that addition to the motion.

“I would encourage Ulland to support the business in whatever way possible —lodging food, whatever— big tips!” said Tuttle.

The motion passed 5-1 with Sherry Baker casting the nay vote. Voting aye were Alan “D.C.” Olsen, Gerry Gervais, Dave Tuttle, John Barton, and Jerry Hiniker.

The following day, the county board reviewed the Planning Commission’s recommendation. Commissioner Jim Johnson said he would support it. “We’re going to have to put up with the noise. We’re going to have to put up with the dust,” he said. “I’m sure I don’t represent everybody in the district when I indicate my support for this.”

“Your business is going to gain by this improvement to the road,” Commissioner Fritz Sobanja said to Stephanie Radloff, Emily LaVigne’s assistant manager, there on behalf of LaVigne. “Let’s get rational here. … It’s just life. It’s no big deal. They’ll get in and out and get it over with.”

Commissioner Bruce Martinson said he understood it would be a hardship but thought Ulland’s intent to get the work done in as short a time frame as possible was “extremely positive.”

Commissioner Sue Hakes said she would vote in favor of the recommendation “with deep regret,” adding, “I think Emily LaVigne’s concerns are valid. I think we have to take the lesser of two evils.”

A motion approving the Interim Use Permit with conditions recommended by the Planning Commission was passed unanimously. It included a requirement that the work begin as soon as possible and not later than July 9 and that it be done within 15 workdays, 10 if possible.

Other projects going on in the same area this summer will be KGM Construction finishing up the portion of road east of the airport road and Northland Constructors working on the airstrip.

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