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County board reduces permit fine

The Becker County Board decided to cut a break -- sort of -- to two residents who have fallen on hard times.

Daniel Hittle and Rhonda Hopkins of rural Frazee admitted last week that they failed to get the proper permits before building a house and septic system.

They built on land adjoining their previous home, which went into foreclosure after he was unable to find work as a construction worker and she lost one of two part-time jobs, they told the board at its regular meeting.

In their situation, renting wasn't an option, either, Hittle said.

"You can't even rent a place without good credit and a stable income," he said.

So Hopkins took out a loan against her 401(k) retirement plan and they decided to build a home.

But they never got the proper permits.

The two should have paid a $294 site application fee and $500 building permit fee prior to starting work on their new house.

Because they didn't, they were hit with the standard county fine -- five times the site application fee, or $1,470 in this case.

They had also failed to pay the $100 septic application fee, and were hit with the standard fine --three times the septic fee, or $300.

All together, they were facing total fees and fines of $2,664.

They explained their predicament, and the fact they have no money to pay fines, to commissioners Larry Knutson and Gerry Schram, who told the couple they had the right to appeal to the full County Board, which they did last week.

"The fines will be beyond what we are capable of doing," Hittle told commissioners. "We'd like to move on and pay the taxes -- this has been quite a stressful situation the last few years."

Commissioners have the authority to abate the fines, but were wary at first, with discussion centering on the possible drawbacks.

"This will set a precedent," said Knutson. "This will be talked about."

But the board also needs to act with reasonableness and understanding, said Commissioner Barry Nelson.

"I could be in favor of reducing it for severe economic hardship," he said.

He suggested the board act with clemency and at least partially reduce the fines. Other commissioners voiced agreement.

Commissioner John Okeson said he agreed with Planning and Zoning Administrator Patty Swenson that "every case should be looked at individually."

Nelson suggested reducing the fine by what amounted to about $1,100, and after more discussion, that ultimately became a motion that was approved by the board.

"Overall, we have to have some compassion," Knutson said, "and that's what I'm seeing is compassion."

The couple was authorized to set up a long-term payment plan to take care of the remaining $1,576 owed to the county.