ADRIAN — Before the Kanaranzi-Little Rock Watershed Board could even approve its minutes from a Dec. 11 meeting — during which it approved four findings of fact to move the County Ditch 11 project forward — a landowner opposed to the project questioned whether the engineer was a reputable man.
Mike Harberts of rural Reading asked the five-member board if they believed engineer Duane Hansel had given them an unbiased decision. Hansel, of Bolton & Menk Inc.’s Sleepy Eye office, is KLR’s engineer for a proposed project to improve a three-mile-long drainage system on County Ditch 11 and a trio of its branches in six sections of Summit Lake Township in Nobles County.The project is the result of a petition filed in April 2013 by John Penning of rural Reading. Because the system impacts multiple landowners whose parcels drain into the ditch, a public hearing was conducted last September in which more than two hours of public testimony was received — much of it in opposition to improvements. Opponents say the ditch improvements aren’t needed, or don’t believe their land will benefit enough when weighing the $831,000 estimated price tag.
Neither Penning nor Hansel was present at Wednesday night’s meeting to defend themselves or the project.
Harberts told the KLR Board Wednesday that Hansel presented only a design incorporating improvements “the petitioners wanted you to see.” He also held up papers he said were handed out during a landowner meeting at a county shop in which an alternative to the $831,000 project was presented. Harberts said the supplementary system uses smaller tile in conjunction with the existing system.
“Except with this tile, because it’s working, they can’t get landowners to write off separable benefits,” Harberts explained. “(Hansel) took the advice of petitioners and presented what they wanted. I don’t know what you think, but that shows bias. It’s several hundred thousand dollars in the petitioners’ favor by saying the system is shot.
“If this thing was shot, we’d be signing on in a heartbeat,” he added. “They’re trying to drain their less-than-desirable property at the expense of their neighbors.”
KLR board members said they had no previous knowledge of the report on a supplementary system, and asked why Harberts did not present the information during the Sept. 30 public hearing. Harberts acknowledged he had the papers with him that night, but said there was so much going on and the board chairman failed to follow the rules of parliamentary procedure by asking three times if there was more discussion.
“But you spoke three different times, Mike,” responded Bruce Heitkamp, KLR executive secretary, who went on to explain to board members that appointed experts were hired, and an engineer was hired to offer a recommendation.
“If you go against the recommendation, the petitioning party is going to appeal and it will just get forwarded,” Heitkamp added.
While Harberts asked the board not to approve the minutes of the Dec. 11 meeting and to seek further information from the KLR’s attorney before doing any more with the petition for improvements, the minutes were accepted.
“To me, the minutes are a record of what happened that night,” KLR Board Chairman Tim Taylor said.
With the minutes approved, Heitkamp reported that he had contacted Ron Ringquist, a ditch system viewer, who suggested a redetermination of benefits be completed at the same time the viewing is done.
“The viewing process may take a year or two to do with the workload of the viewers,” Heitkamp said, adding that it has been 50 to 60 years since the benefits were determined on the ditch system.
Greg Ponto said he was concerned the engineer hasn’t looked at issues downstream, and also disagreed with the engineer’s opinion to use non-perforated tile as a replacement to the existing tile. He asked the board when it could make comments on the system’s design.
KLR Board member Colleen Gruis said what has been presented thus far is a preliminary engineering report. The board can, and has asked, for further review of specific issues in the report. She said written concerns from the Department of Natural Resources were given to the engineer to address, including the DNR’s ideas for alternatives to the engineer’s existing plan.
“We put the whole DNR letter in to be addressed by the engineer, but we had no idea there were other plans out there,” Gruis said. “We were following the professionals and the engineer we hired.”
Layton Gruis, another KLR Board member, reminded attendees Wednesday that all the board has done thus far is approve the findings of fact.
“Does this mean this is a correct project? Absolutely not,” he said. “You guys could be dead-set against this project and you are, and I understand it. The point is they presented a legal document and it met Point 1, 2, 3 and 4.”
Both Harberts and Ponto questioned how far in the process the board was willing to go before putting a stop to it.
“Anytime (Hansel) goes to the next level, it makes it harder to defeat,” Harberts said.
Ponto, meanwhile, said pushing the project further down the road is “kind of doing the (Pennings) a disservice” and costing them money.
“I understand what the Pennings are doing,” Ponto said. “I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. It really isn’t a public benefit.”
Colleen Gruis assured the individuals that the board was listening to them.
“It’s a many-step project,” she said. “It’s not going to be determined tonight; it’s not going to be determined next month. We are learning what we can.”
Layton Gruis indicated he had concerns about spending public money on a project that “doesn’t benefit 100 percent of the landowners.”
Discussion on the project will continue at future KLR board meetings, as Harberts requested the board conduct a public reading and interpretation of the KLR Watershed rules and regulations.
The board has been working on updating its rules since 2012, and that process is nearing completion.