City of Rice Lake pumps the brakes on potential asphalt plant
The City Council unanimously adopted a one-year moratorium on a possible hot-mix facility, which had drawn sharp criticism from neighbors.
In December, a company called "Eagle Lake Land LLC" quietly purchased several parcels in southern Rice Lake, along the city's border with Duluth.
The entity, tied to Proctor's Sinnott Blacktop, paid $545,000 for the nearly 140-acre site, which currently contains an old gravel pit and significant greenspace between Martin and Riley roads, just west of Duluth's Lake Park Fields Athletic Complex.
While the developer has remained tight-lipped about plans for the site, it has been the subject of a bevy of rumors, accusations, petitions and, ultimately, a city moratorium over the possibility of Sinnott building a hot-mix asphalt facility on the site.
"I'm concerned about the noise," said Ian Johnson, who lives on Riley Road, just north of the site. "I'm concerned about the odor. … I'm concerned about the environmental impact. The east branch of Amity Creek runs right through the property."
Johnson is among a handful of nearby residents active in an initiative known as "Keep Ordinance 22," a reference to the city of Rice Lake's current zoning code. They claim the city has shown an eagerness to welcome the asphalt plant without public input.
The group has distributed yard signs demanding "No toxic asphalt plan in Rice Lake," launched a website , gathered signatures on a petition and bombarded city officials with phone calls and emails in a proactive effort to fend off an asphalt facility.
But Mayor John Werner said the effort is overblown and premature. He said the city zoning official fielded a phone call from the company back in February regarding the possibility of a hot-mix plant, but a complete application has yet to be submitted for formal review.
"It's had a life of its own," Werner said. "We had people saying all kinds of things — that we were hiding behind COVID to run this through at the midnight hour. Just all these accusations are absurd."
Hot-mix asphalt is produced by adding a cement-binding agent to material such as gravel or sand. Heated to 300-350 degrees before installation, it is commonly used to pave roads and parking lots.
Amid public pressure, the City Council voted unanimously last week to place a one-year moratorium on the acceptance of applications for any such facility in the city. The council also ordered a study to analyze possible regulations that could be implemented to "promote the general health, safety and welfare of the people in the city."
Werner said he learned after the vote that the company had submitted a partial application for the site just days earlier, but it was returned by zoning officials for being incomplete. And with the moratorium now in place, it will be next July before any completed application could even be considered.
"We just want everyone to calm down," the mayor said. "We'll all go through this together. We're not doing anything in the dark of night behind locked doors. If we get an application, which won't be until after the moratorium ends, we'll put it out there for the world to see. We all live here, too."
Sinnott representatives did not respond to inquiries from the News Tribune about plans for the property.
The site currently holds a gravel pit off Martin Road, which neighbors say has been mostly idle for many years, but about two-thirds of the property remains undeveloped.
Johnson, who has lived on Riley Road for seven years, fears it could change the entire complexion of his neighborhood. He enjoys raising his family in a relativity quiet residential area, but now worries that they'll be inundated with large truck traffic, noxious fumes and loud noises at all hours.
Residents involved in the Keep Ordinance 22 initiative have also pointed to potential health issues, plummeting property values and negative impacts on soil and water.
Johnson and others have been critical of the city's handling of the situation, citing a lack of transparency around possible changes to the zoning ordinance to accommodate the plant. It remains unclear if, and how, a hot-mix facility could even operate on the site.
According to the city, current zoning code allows for a bituminous hot-mix facility within a borrow pit, which requires a conditional use permit.
The existing gravel pit, in use well before Rice Lake incorporated as a city, is allowed to operate under a grandfather clause. City officials have discretion to revoke that permit if the site is left untouched for a period of 365 days — but it's unclear if that is the case with the property in question.
City Attorney Mike Couri advised councilors at a June 29 special meeting that they would need to give due process to the property owner should an application be submitted. He said the city could rely on testimony and aerial photos to determine if the conditional use permit has been forfeited, according to meeting minutes.
The city's Planning Commission in May looked at updates to the zoning ordinance that would potentially allow Sinnott to meet standards for operating on the site, including the elimination of certain buffer zone requirements with neighboring properties. Several dozen residents turned out to the meeting, and the commission ultimately decided to hold off on any changes to Ordinance 22.
"It's hard to understand exactly what's going on," Johnson said. "If there hasn't been a formal application or an official request for changes to the ordinance, then why are they putting all this work into something that hasn't happened?"
Johnson said the moratorium amounted to a "small victory," but indicated the group isn't likely to slow down its opposition to the project.
Werner said the embargo will allow concerns to be heard from all sides before any further decisions are made.
If an application is eventually received, the Planning Commission would be tasked with determining whether it's an acceptable use for the site — a decision that could be appealed by either the property owner or neighbors to the City Council. The project may also require a state environmental review.
"Any application is entitled to due process," Werner said. "That's where it sits right now. Facts are being gathered. It's an education process."