Morrissey: Little council can do about Heartland
Throngs of people descended on the Fairfield City Council chambers Monday to hear the city’s plan of action for dealing with Heartland Co-op, which is proposing to build a grain elevator northeast of the intersection of Nutmeg Avenue and Old Highway 34.
Several audience members took the microphone and urged the council to do whatever it could to force Heartland Co-op to relocate farther from town. City Attorney John Morrissey acknowledged the city has some authority to enact zoning within two miles of the city limits, an area part of the city’s urbanized area. However, he added that enacting such zoning was not as simple as the council passing an ordinance in a few months’ time.
The Jefferson County Board of Supervisors considered enacting zoning in 1996 after a commission had studied the matter for three years. Before the issue went before the board of supervisors, three public hearings were held, two of which were in the high school. Morrissey, who was then county attorney, said the public hearings drew huge crowds, in one case attracting an estimated 1,000 people. Those who spoke were overwhelmingly against any land-use restrictions that zoning would entail. The result was the proposed zoning ordinance went nowhere and the county commission was disbanded.
A year later, the city council took up the issue of zoning within its urbanized area. Once again, a large crowd gathered to oppose the idea. To enact zoning in the urbanized area, the council had to appoint residents from that area to serve on the city’s zoning commission, and the supervisors would have to do the same. Further, the commission would need to create a map depicting how land was currently used and how the commission wanted the land to be zoned. Due to the opposition from the public, the council never appointed the necessary residents to the zoning commission and no maps were ever created. Morrissey said that within a few months the proposal had run out of steam.
Morrissey told Monday’s crowd that in order for the city to zone in the two-mile jurisdiction, it would need to complete the process that began and later stalled 17 years ago. He said it could take six to eight months, or perhaps even longer, for the additional zoning commissioners to be appointed and for the maps to be drawn. Furthermore, even after all that, he said county laws could still trump city zoning.
Morrissey said any petition to stop the construction of the grain elevator should be shown to the county, which could act more quickly than the city. He said the developer needs nothing from the city in the way of permits or waivers.
Lastly, Morrissey informed the audience that an even more fundamental law may prevent the city from “zoning away” Heartland Co-op’s grain elevator and that is the property is already purchased and the project is underway. Trying to prevent its construction now could be seen by the courts as an ex-post facto law, a law that attempts to punish an act that was legal at the time it was committed. Article I Section 9 of the United States Constitution forbids ex-post facto laws.
Mayor Ed Malloy said he was able to speak with Todd Phillips, Heartland Co-op executive vice president of grain and risk management. Phillips told Malloy that Heartland expects 40-50 trains to travel to the elevator annually if the elevator reaches its full potential. That would require about 14,000-18,000 grain trucks to unload at the facility a year.
Malloy said the cement bins will be 150 feet tall at their peak, and the grain leg tower will be 220 feet tall at its peak. The service hours will be from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except during harvest season when hours will be extended. The elevator site will be approximately 3-4 acres. The majority of the site, about 150 acres, will remain in row crop production.
Several members of the public addressed the council about Heartland Co-op’s proposed grain elevator. Fairfield resident Paul Glossop characterized the project as a “24-hour demon’s orchestra of grain dryers and 14,000 semi-truck deliveries … smashing our under-built roads.”
Glossop warned the council about allowing small, incremental changes to Fairfield’s character that it would come to regret because the city missed the opportunity to chart a better course.
Resident Keith DeBoer referred to the Tax Increment Financing district the supervisors are considering for Heartland as nothing more than “corporate welfare.” He said the company has not been forthcoming in providing important information to the public. He said the co-op would negatively impact the 20 employees at Reiff Grain and 30 employees at Overland Sheepskin.
Resident Marcia Hansen said the project had nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with “corporate greed.”
“This company is running roughshod over our local families,” she said.
Roger Leahy, whose family owns Overland Sheepskin across the street from the proposed construction site, said local governments could try to convince Heartland to move its operation to another county. He said he would even consider raising money to compensate Heartland for not building the grain elevator so close to town.