Scrappy opponents want Otter Tail County to scrap proposed junkyard law
If nearly 150 people at an informational meeting had their way, Otter Tail County's "Junkyard Ordinance" rough draft would be headed immediately to the scrap heap.
County officials had their backs against the walls -- literally -- at the July 9 New York Mills meeting. The county's good faith attempt to write a law to clean up nuisance collections of junk has struck an angry nerve with landowners, farmers, used implement and parts dealers, and others.
About 100 people crammed into a meeting room designed for about 75. There were still another 50 or so outside the door, so the county officials backed their chairs and table snug to the back wall, freeing up more standing-room-only space.
The two hours of public input ranged in tone from polite to rude; from humorous to belligerent.
"We wanted to get out and hold meetings to find out what people thought about this...I think we're getting the drift," deadpanned County Commissioner Syd Nelson, after the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the prospect of a junkyard ordinance.
Response was similar at informational meetings in Parkers Prairie, which drew about 50; and in Fergus Falls July 10, which drew a crowd as large as at the New York Mills meeting.
"Lake people" blamed for prospect of ordinance
Also taking a verbal beating at the sessions were "lake people."
Opponents of an ordinance contended numerous times at the meeting that it was transplanted lake home owners who were the driving force behind the junk proposals.
"Lake people come up here, build their million dollar homes...drive up the taxes for the rest of us," said one landowner. "Now, they sit in their million dollar homes and don't like the way things look around the countryside."
"Junk" is defined in the language of the ordinance, as well as "junkyard," "junk dealer," and "junk vehicles." Larger "junkyards" would be required to be screened from public view, by fences or landscaping.
Only three blocks from the meeting at the New York Mills county government center is the town's "sculpture park," which displays various art pieces created from...well...junk. This irony was not lost on the crowd.
"I suppose we'll have to put a fence around that," laughed one at the meeting.
Solid waste director in hot seat at informational meetings
For County Solid Waste officer Mike Hanan, it was a little like facing a verbal firing squad the size of three Army platoons. He was essentially alone, back against the wall, responding politely to often-ornery remarks and questions. But he tried to keep the discourse as positive as possible.
"I don't consider what we're doing here tonight arguing...we're discussing," said Hanan with a smile.
Hanan repeatedly tried to explain -- for the most part futilely and between loud interruptions -- that the series of informational meetings were intended specifically for input and discussion.
"This is a gorgeous county to live in, but these complaints keep popping up here and there," said Hanan. "This is just the start of the process. We're looking for help from you on how to deal with it."
Hanan displayed pictures of piles of junk from around the county. One of the locations has been there five years, with no clean-up -- despite repeated county attempts.
One of the most difficult distinctions to draw is the difference between "junk" and "salvage." Further, what is a legitimate salvage or "junk" yard and what is just a "junky" yard?
The county receives numerous complaints about visual eyesores, but present ordinances don't establish enough authority for the county to act on the complaints, said Hanan. Concerns about illegal dumps and junk yards also include environmental, public health and safety, rodents, and water quality impacts.
Licensing is major concern for opponents of ordinance
One of the most controversial segments of the ordinance was a measure that would require a license if a property owner has more than five junk autos, or junk equivalent to the same space as five junk cars.
"License is just another word for regulation," said Jim Osterfeld, who was particularly concerned that a junkyard ordinance would be yet another government intrusion on the rights of property owners.
Rusting farm implements, displayed on hilltops and along fence lines, are "part of my heritage," said Bruce Lubitz, Perham.
"When I drive down the road and see a line of old combines, it is our history...that's what built this area," said Lubitz.
Bluffton implement parts dealer Eric Roggenkamp said that a junkyard ordinance, on top of rising fuel prices and other expenses, "could put a lot of us out of business."
"Farmers recycle many things. In this time of the nation's history, with the re-use and recycle movement, why would you want an ordinance that prevents us from doing this?" questioned Mike Bondzin, Bluffton area. "It's the American way to recycle -- my grandfather never threw anything away."
Visual Chaos Committee reported to county on eyesore issues
The "Visual Chaos Committee," a volunteer group sanctioned by the county, researched junk laws and recommended a junkyard ordinance. Since several of the members of the committee were evidently "lake people," the group was immediately suspect.
The "Visual Chaos Committee" determined, in effect, that there should be some form of nuisance ordinance to control the spread of junk cars, debris and other materials throughout the county.
The few people who -- bravely -- identified themselves as "lake people," or even moderately in favor of an ordinance, were hopelessly outnumbered. The few comments they attempted to utter were, for the most part, quickly and decisively shouted down by the opponents.
Petition drives have been launched on both sides of the issue.
Several at the meeting contended that the "lake people" pollute more than the farmers, because of gas leaking from powerboats and the use of chemicals and fertilizers on lakeshore lawns. Further, noted one landowner, many lake homes have several boats, boat lifts, docks and other apparatus--why shouldn't they have to screen or fence their property from public view?
Some recommend local, voluntary clean-up campaigns
There were several people who called for localized clean-up campaigns and voluntary compliance -- before the county passes a top-down ordinance.
"There are 62 townships in this county, and rather than spending most of their time setting gopher bounties and voting on whether to put down some Class 5 on a road, these town boards should buckle down and take care of the problem in their own communities," said Arnie Cox, Pelican Rapids area.
"Everybody has to realize that, if we love it here--we have to take care of it," continued Cox. "...If we don't, we could end up with ordinances that won't be as good for lake people, farmers or anybody else."
There were several comments urging a countywide clean-up campaign on a "voluntary basis, to get everybody working in the same direction," said one person at the meeting, rather than create more government regulation. The city of Ottertail's highly successful clean-up drive was noted as one model for launching localized efforts.