Council approves annexation

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Those against the development had 3,000 signatures and a council room full of people, but the developers had a housing study and several recommendations on their side.

Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Those against the development had 3,000 signatures and a council room full of people, but the developers had a housing study and several recommendations on their side.

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Monday night the developers won this round in the tug of war over the annexation of the 55 acres of land west of the JC Hormel Nature Center by a vote of 6-1, with Dick Lang dissenting.

Council member at-large Dick Chaffee summed it up after the meeting:

"We had a farmer who wanted to annex," he said. "We have a developer who wants to build housing. We have the Friends of the Nature Center who say they are neutral. We got a positive opinion from the Nature Center Taskforce and a positive opinion from the council ordinance committee [who voted 2-1 to recommend the annexation]. Using all the different groups’ information and their evaluations, I voted ‘yes.’

"This is not a feedlot, this is not a commercial development. These are nice single family homes."

In the first round of the annexation game, the victory was the opposition’s, when the Lansing Township Board voted down an orderly annexation.

One to one, tie game.

The tiebreaker? The public. By the process of initiative and referendum, the public can make its opinion known.

Already, the opposition has more than enough signatures to start the referendum ball rolling. If they choose to file those within seven days of the ordinance appearing in the Austin Daily Herald’s legal section, the voting citizens of Austin will get their chance to decide the fate of the annexation in the November election, if not sooner. If a referendum is called – once the 30 signatures come in to declare an intent to petition for referendum, opponents of the annexation by ordinance need a total of 970 signatures in 30 days to get the issue on the ballot – it will be the first since 1988.

"After this, the only option is to go to referendum," Dr. Mark Reeve said, adding that he wasn’t surprised by the vote. Reeve had addressed the council during the meeting, asking that they vote against the annexation and pointing out the arguments in favor of turning the 55 acres – now farmland with an erosion problem – into a natural habitat for wildlife.

Reeve and the other members of the audience Monday night weren’t there as members of the Concerned Citizens for the Hormel Nature Center group, however. They were there as concerned and private citizens. Although the Concerned Citizens started the opposition movement, they are now focusing on fundraising for land acquisition. They have – as a group – officially washed their hands of the annexation issue.

Francis Skinness also spoke against the development of the land for residential housing.

"We can develop the land for wildlife, not people," Skinness said. "There are lots of other places for people to go, there aren’t lots of places for wildlife."

After the meeting, Skinness wasn’t pleased at what he saw as the council "counting too much on the public to take the issue to referendum."

Developer Rick Kahn is president of the Greater Minnesota Affordable Housing Company which wants to build on the land.

"I never take anything for granted," he said. "I hope the citizens will consider that with that vote, the council concluded that the project would not harm the nature center nor would it interfere with any expansion of the nature center," Kahn said. "With all the time and attention they’ve given to this issue, plus all the petitions, they would not have voted for anything that would cause any harm."

His partner Dave Wellstone was also pleased, and ready for any referendum.

"If we can take the facts out to the people of Austin like we were able to do for the council, we’ll be able to win a referendum," Wellstone, son of U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, said. "We’re not afraid. What we want to do is make sure people are signing something that’s based on the facts."

People opposing the development are meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the J.C. Hormel Nature Center.