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Beltrami County Board: Watered-down encroachment policy set for Dec. 15 approval

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A scaled-back county highway encroachment policy heads for Beltrami County Board approval on Dec. 15.

Commissioners, who'd rather not have a policy, are resigned to pass some sort of policy to have it on the record to be eligible for state and federal road funding.

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No one spoke in favor of the policy to keep county highway rights-of-way clear of hazardous obstacles at a public hearing and second reading on Tuesday.

About three-fourths of the 15 people who came for the public hearing raised their hands when Board Chairman Jim Lucachick asked how many want no policy, despite state law that requires one.

Pushing for the policy is County Highway Engineer Tyler Koos.

":Along Beltrami County highways there are numerous locations where objects have been installed in the county right-of-way," Koos writes in a memo to commissioners. "These objects can be a safety hazard to errant vehicles, consequently they also represent a significant liability to the county if one of these objects were hit or someone were injured in an accident."

Commissioners appear OK with a policy that bans such objects in the future, but want to grandfather in the current hazards. And they want nothing done with business signs that now encroach the rights-of-way.

"This can be handled by grandfathering in everything," said Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks. "This should have been done years ago and we wouldn't have had a problem."

Lucachick said the county needs to "get it done" in passing a policy but that "we aren't going to remove everything - that could be a tremendous effort and expense."

The county needs to "look at blatant hazards," said Commissioner Joe Vene, "otherwise leave well enough alone. There must be a balance, a new road project must be cleared."

Commissioner Jim Heltzer, who was absent, left a memo with a number of questions, such as would the policy be uniformly enforced, who will enforce it and who pays for enforcement.

"One of my reasons for opposing the adoption of such a policy is that to my memory, the county has never been sued due to damages incurred due to things in the right-of-way," Heltzer wrote, calling the issue "a solution in search of a problem."

Adopting the strictest policy would force farmers to move fences, culverts would have to be moved, and many trees cut down, he wrote.

"From my perspective, it would seem appropriate that some kind of a policy be developed that, first, prohibits new encroachments; second, authorizes the county engineer ... to direct the immediate removal of those existing safety hazards (primarily in the recovery zone) that create an immediate threat to public safety; finally, grandfather other encroachments until such time as a county road project is undertaken on the roadway that would require the clearing of all encroachments on the county road."

Commissioner Jack Frost said Heltzer "articulates it well" and would add "some provision for space for businesses in this county that people have to find. Don't take away signs from businesses, even if they must be break-away signs."

John Peterson asked if the policy would mean that buildings adjacent to the highway in Pinewood would have to be relocated.

"The building has been there a long time," Koos said. "We aren't going to move it. There are always exceptions in a policy. We would review something if it is truly a safety hazard."

"The last thing I want is to have you go out there and move your fences back 10 or 15 feet," Lucachick told the audience.

Fairbanks asked that a formal appeals and variance process be included in the draft policy, allowing a landowner to appeal a County Highway Department ruling that something has to be removed from the right-of-way or accident recovery zone.

"This is not what the State Aid Office would like," Koos said of suggested changes. "They would allow no grandfathering in."

Lucachick noted for the record that the Buzzle Town Board has gone on record opposing the draft policy.

A third reading of the draft policy, with suggestions from Tuesday included, will be held Dec. 15. At that time, commissioners can adopt the policy or drop it.

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