The informational Harris City Council meeting held Nov. 12 to discuss the impact of the traffic created by Tiller Corporation opening a sand processing plant in North Branch was only a work session, so no decisions could be made. At the regular council meeting Nov. 19, the council again looked at the same issue.
The council invited Chisago County Engineer Joe Triplett to offer his expertise on how Tiller Corp.’s sand processing plant could affect the county roads through Harris, specifically the intersection of County 10 and County 30. Triplett said a traffic study to determine the potential impacts of traffic to and from Tiller Corp. would be completed at three intersections in the county. Those intersections include County 19 and County 30 in Stacy, County 14 and Grand Avenue in North Branch, and the Harris intersection. Even without the additional trucks created by Tiller Corp., those intersections need to be studied, Triplett said.
CUP handled by North Branch
When Tiller Corp. decided on a location and started the process to build its sand fracking plant, the access was on a street owned by the city of North Branch. So the conditional use permit for the business was handled through the city. The information given to Triplett as part of the application for the CUP was that the increase in traffic would be approximately 4 percent. This was not enough to cause warnings and demand more work be done to study the impact on Harris, according to Triplett.
But with vehicles heading to and from Tiller Corp., Knife River and other traffic through the area, Triplett said more than a study on just county roads 10 and 30 needs to be done. He noted if a change is made there, the traffic might change to a different route, creating problems elsewhere. Triplett stressed a comprehensive study needs to be done of the whole area.
Intersection not meeting standards
Triplett also indicated the intersection of County 10 and County 30 is not up to standards. If the intersection would be constructed today, there would be a 50-foot turning radius. It would be a quick, temporary fix to increase the radius. But that fix is not the complete answer.
Harris City Engineer Chuck Schwartz has been working on an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, of which part deals with the potential traffic issues related to Tiller Corp. Schwartz indicated part of the EAW might be a traffic study. It would deal not only with that issue, but other aspects of how the plant could affect the environment. But just because the petition for the EAW is submitted does not mean the traffic study would be done. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency could review the petition and decide further study is not warranted.
Tiller Corp. had indicated at the previous meeting that if the city would not petition for the EAW, Tiller Corp. would pay for the traffic study. The council then questioned Mike Caron, director of land use affairs for Tiller Corp., as to what the advantage to the city this would be if the EAW was completed.
Caron said most traffic studies cost about $20,000.
He noted Tiller Corp. would fund that cost.
Triplett would decide what the traffic study needs to address. The study would then be put out on bids to engineering companies that could do that type of work. When and if Triplett selected which entity would do the study, Tiller Corp. would then pay the bill.
Caron brought to the council’s attention that Tiller Corp. has been through EAW’s and Environmental Impact Studies.
In those prior EAWs, traffic is addressed. To have a traffic study done, the intersection in question would have to have at least a peak traffic hour exceeding 250 vehicles or total daily trips exceeding 2,500. Of the more than 13 EAWs and EISs Tiller Corp. has been involved in, none have limited the traffic of an operation that was studied.
Traffic study recommendations
Once the traffic study is completed, recommendations as to what improvements need to be done to protect the road and the safety of the residents are made. To make those improvements would take funding. As they are county roads, it would fall on the county to pay for those improvements. One source of funding could be the gravel tax. An ordinance related to industries like Tiller Corp. calls for a tax of 15 cents on every ton of aggregate that is brought in to or shipped out of Chisago County. With an estimate of 1,800 tons per day, this would result in a tax of $84,000. Council member Randy Carlson investigated how those funds are disbursed. Part of the ordinance indicates of the tax collected, 42.5 percent goes directly to the county to be used on the roads. Fifteen percent goes to a fund to mediate the impact of the mining operation on the land. The other 42.5 percent goes to the city where the operation is located to cover costs for their roads and safety issues. This amount would go to the city of North Branch, not to Harris, as the plant is located in North Branch.
Chisago County Commissioner Mike Robinson was in attendance at the meeting.
He said the city of Harris and the residents need to attend county board meetings and stress how important it is to improve the County 10/County 30 intersection. Until the issue is brought to the board, nothing can be done.
Council approves Tiller Corp. offer
It then became time to decide what the council was to do – whether it would continue with the EAW process and rely on the MPCA to do a comprehensive study of the impact on Harris, or take Tiller Corp. up on its offer to fund the traffic study. Caron again offered not only to fund the traffic study, but also include payment for some of the improvements, to a total investment at $50,000. Depending on what the results of the traffic study are, that amount could go up, but would not go down. Based on that information, the council made the decision, on a 3-2 vote, to no longer support or sponsor the petition for the EAW. Because the citizens of Harris signed it, it could not be withdrawn. But the city will not fund any additional costs and directed the city engineer to do no additional work on the petition. This action allowed the city to accept Tiller Corp’s offer relating to the traffic study and improvements.