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Anger over plans for gravel pit, asphalt hot-mix plant on Highway 34

A Brainerd asphalt company ran into a boiling cauldron of opposition Tuesday over plans to open an existing gravel pit across Highway 34 from the Twin Haven mobile home park.

Anderson Brothers Construction, which specializes in asphalt and bituminous paving, came before the Becker County Planning Commission to request a conditional use permit to mine sand and gravel, crush gravel, and operate a temporary hot mix asphalt plant on the Harold and Marlene Hickel property in Erie Township, about 7 miles east of Detroit Lakes.

The company asked to be allowed to mine gravel during daylight hours, or from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. from mid-May through mid-October.

If the company had a contract for a public roads project in the area, gravel-crushing would be allowed to proceed 24 hours a day.

The Hickel property borders Perch Lake to the north and the Otter Tail River to the east, and residents of the area were not thrilled at the prospect of hearing heavy equipment working all night and smelling hot asphalt cooking all summer.

About 30 people showed up at the planning commission meeting, and another dozen submitted letters in opposition. A petition signed by 35 people urged the commission not to grant the conditional use permit.

Ron Wickham, vice president for aggregates for Anderson Brothers, told the commission that the company has been in business for 70 years, employs 200 people, and has a good reputation.

The company operates numerous mining operations in residential areas with minimal complaints, he said.

Anderson Brothers is willing to work with the community to alleviate concerns and to work with the planning commission to set conditions of operation that work for all concerned, he said.

The neighbors were concerned about the noise, the smell, the traffic on Highway 34, and the effect on quality of life and property values, among other things.

Mark Anderson, of Twin Haven Estates, said "we have 60 families right across the road -- we worry about the noise and smell and traffic on Highway 34. We just think it's a bad situation."

Jeff Stowman, who lives on Perch Lake, said, "We're concerned about the asphalt smell, the noise of crushing, the noise of machinery."

He had been prepared to accept a compromise for gravel mining during business hours on weekdays, for example, but after learning that the hot mix plant would operate as-needed, as long as there were driveways to be paved or other work to be done in the area, he changed his mind.

"That changes the landscape completely if they are going to come in and set up a long-term business," Stowman said.

Added Dennis Capistran of Twin Haven, "Traffic on Highway 34 is pretty wicked in the summer, with tourists, local people and of course tubers. I don't understand why the plant has to be near a residential area -- they're usually in an industrial area or out in the country."

Some on the planning commission said the conditions of operation would have to be substantially reworked before they would consider approving the request.

Others said they would not likely support the request under any circumstances because of the residential aspect of the area and the nature of the business.

Becker County Commissioner Larry Knutson, who sits on the planning commission and lives near the site, said he believes there is a need for that type of business in that part of the county, and property owners should be able to make full use of their land as long as it doesn't hurt others.

But he said it doesn't seem right that some of the Hickel property had been sold off as residential, and now they propose to sell some for commercial use.

"This property is zoned agricultural, but its use is definitely residential," he said. "Now they want a commercial operation on it. It doesn't seem right, it's like dirtying your own nest somehow."

Board Chairman Jim Bruflodt said he understands the business approach of asking the planning commission for a blank slate and then negotiating down to more reasonable conditions, but said it was the wrong approach in this case because it alarmed and angered everyone in the neighborhood.

The Anderson Brothers' permit request was tabled at the company's request.

Brad Busbey, environmental services manager for Anderson Brothers, admitted the company was blindsided by the strong opposition.

"We didn't think there'd be a problem," he said. "It's been a gravel pit (in operation off and on) since 1969 -- we didn't realize the problems there would be until the letters started coming in."

The company can return with a new proposal and the planning commission will again have 60 days to act on its request.