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Beltrami County Highway Engineer Tyler Koos explains to commissioners why he wants a policy to ban objects in county rights-of-way for public safety. Commissioners, who will discuss possible policy next month, remain split on the idea. Pioneer Photo/ Brad Swenson

Beltrami County Board: County engineer wants road ditches cleared of hazards

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Equipment or brick-laid signs in county rights-of-way can be killers, and Beltrami County Highway Engineer Tyler Koos wants them banned.

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But county commissioners remain split on framing such a policy, fearing it may dampen a tourism industry dependent upon roadside resort signs.

"Over time, various objects have been placed in county highway right-of-way and represent a safety concern for motorists and a potential liability to the county," Koos told commissioners Tuesday.

Called encroachments, Koos showed photos of a business sign just feet off the roadway which was placed in a brick enclosure, rows of tires halfway in the ground presumably to prevent ATVs from traversing a drive off the county road, and heavy equipment for sale placed on the high side of a road ditch.

Another landowner planted trees just off the road, which Koos said will someday grow into tall trees that can stop a car cold that swerves off the road.

The county retains liability within the road corridor, sometimes 50 feet or more off the centerline, and Koos fears that if a vehicle hits an obstacle, the county would be open to lawsuits.

"How in the hell are people going to find the resort if you can't have a stinking sign," aid Commissioner Jack Frost, who owns Joe's Lodge on Lake Andrusia. "You have a dissenting vote. All may be new well-intentioned ordinances, but can be anti-business. It doesn't make sense when you're trying to have commerce."

"If someone hits your sign, the county is liable," County Board Chairman Jim Lucachick told Frost, who has a resort sign set back from the road but near it.

Commissioners took no action Tuesday, but scheduled a more detailed discussion at a work session next month and asked Koos to present a draft ordinance for study.

"It has been encouraged that the various county departments take initiatives to work toward strategic themes," Koos said. "Beltrami County has identified providing a safe place to live is a priority for our area. Clearing right-of-way encroachments improves roadway safety and is consistent with the Safe Neighborhoods theme"

Koos said that in the last 10 years in Beltrami County, there have been 307 collisions with a fixed object. Twenty-three left incapacitating injuries, 63 with non-incapacitating injuries, 62 with probable injuries and 119 causing just property damage.

"The threat is real," he said.

Yet when Lucachick asked if the county had ever been sued in a case where someone hit an obstruction in a county right-of-way, County Attorney Tim Faver said no.

"Some lawsuits have been related to highway design, but not to an accident where striking something in the right-of-way that should have been removed," Faver said.

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks, who asked to table the discussion to a work session, said that if the county does issue a policy banning objects in the right-of-way, that those resorts and businesses that have signs that encroach into the right-of-way be grandfathered-in for three years.

County-placed signs and mailboxes are "break-away," meaning they easily give way when struck by a vehicle, and he suggested research into the possibility of resort and business signs that could do the same.

"I'm sympathetic with Jack's (Frost's) position," said Commissioner Jim Heltzer. "Tourism is a major industry. It is irritating to me that county staff pulls up (political) lawn signs. We need to be responsible - we can't have an absolute ban on all on the roadside."

Commissioner Joe Vene worried if a county ban on encroachments in the right-of-way would also apply within county cities.

"We are living in a litigious society, and we need to do the best we can to protect ourselves," Vene said.

The county is already liable, Koos said, as he must sign off on any highway project involving state aid that "the right-of-way is presently clear of encroachments, and that I will not allow future encroachments to occur."

Not following those directions could even result in the loss of federal funds on federally funded highway projects, he said.

The state Department of Transportation defines encroachment as "any building, fence, sign, billboard or other structure or object of any kind (with the exception of public and private utilities) placed, located or maintained in, on, under or over any portion of the highway right-of-way."

The County Board struggled several years ago with an ordinance that would regulate the placement of billboards within the county. Instead, the board enacted a one-year moratorium on additional billboards, which has since expired with no further action.

bswenson@bemidjipioneer.com

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