A long-running legal saga between Helga Township and an auto salvage business in northern Hubbard County may be heading for resolution after the town's zoning board granted Mike's Auto Salvage & Auto Body Repair a Conditional Use Permit Wednesday night to conduct and expand the business.
One year ago the township's Board of Adjustment had revoked a similar CUP granted in 2007 for the salvage yard on Highway 71, citing numerous environmental violations.
The agreement forged Wednesday night will end an expensive and protracted lawsuit filed when the township, in seeking a cease and desist order, filed claims and business owner Mike Lyle and his brother Paul Lyle filed counter-claims in Hubbard County District Court.
The township asserted the business violated environmental laws, ignored the necessity of obtaining required permits, operated business late at night, disturbing the neighbors, and incurred two criminal convictions in the process of operating illegally.
Mike Lyle and his attorney maintained as a fledgling business owner he made mistakes in the past, but wanted to rectify them and build a successful salvage operation that would contribute to the county tax base and be an asset to the township. Paul Lyle, an out-of-state resident, owns the property the salvage yard is situated on, but is otherwise not part of the business.
The CUP issued Wednesday night is conditional on Lyle adhering to a mediation agreement approved by the Helga Township Board the previous night ending the lawsuit. Lyle promised to obtain all necessary permits and operate within federal, state and county laws.
In return, the township will sign off on Lyle's application to Hubbard County to operate a junkyard, which is the next step in the permitting process. County approval of the junkyard permit is predicated on Lyle having various waste disposal and environmental practices in place, has proper bonding and operates his business, especially a car crushing operation, within the law.
The mediation agreement includes a mechanism for binding arbitration to settle any future disputes dealing with Lyle's compliance with both the CUP and various laws.
For Lyle's neighbor, Silas Hooker, it was a bitter defeat and he left the zoning board meeting angry.
He has spoken up at numerous meetings in which the issue was discussed. Hooker, who also owns a business next door, said his aim is not to put the Lyles out of business, but to force them into compliance.
Late night noise often wakes him, he said, and he has lodged numerous complaints to Lyle. Noise and vibrations from the quarterly crushing operations shake the foundation of his house, he told the zoning board.
Unless it's an emergency, the new CUP and attached agreement states there will be no late night unloading of vehicles, and business hours will be only until 7 p.m. weeknights.
Hooker, a former township board chair, said he's skeptical the new township officers will enforce any future violations.
"Will they do it?" he said of invoking the binding arbitration clause. "It's been going on for 2½ years."
"You were on the board" at the time Lyle's first CUP was granted, pointed out the township insurer's attorney Kenneth Bayliss. The St. Cloud lawyer was retained by the Minnesota Association of Townships Insurance Trust to represent the township officers in the litigation.
Bayliss said the mediation agreement "provides a very strict enforcement mechanism. It puts Mr. Lyle in the cross hairs."
Several township residents voiced opposition to issuing the CUP, based on past non-compliance.
Lyle maintained in a 2008 meeting he needed to crush cars at a Lake George site to survive financially while the Highway 71 operation was under the cease and desist order. That was when he incurred the criminal charge of violating the county's solid waste ordinance. He was not licensed to operate the crushing operation.
"This was a joke," Hooker said during his lengthy opposition, repeatedly asking the zoning board to answer his questions about violations.
"I didn't know we were on trial here," objected zoning board member Steve Pemble.
The CUP specifies the salvage yard may have up to 1,200 vehicles and 300 spare tires, which all must be concealed from public view behind a fence. Lyle said he has cleaned up the fluid, oil and gas spills and obtained all the necessary bonding to operate.
Township board member Shannon Skime rationalized the agreement.
"Right now we're projecting what could be a long and costly" court fight, she said. The arbitration clause is a way of "quickly taking care of future problems."
Township resident Robert Munz questioned the wisdom of foregoing future litigation in favor of having an arbitrator decide disputes over future compliance instead of a district judge.
"The court system can be very slow and very costly," replied township attorney Steve Bolton.