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County rethinks road encroachment policy

Realizing the enormity of the task, Beltrami County commissioners this week backed off a proposed policy to clear county road rights-of-way of hazards.

"If you're going to do it to the farmers, you need to do it for everyone on Lake Bemidji," former Beltrami County Commissioner Rodney Benson told the County Board on Tuesday during a first reading of the new policy.

"You aren't going to start logging around the lake," said Benson of Puposky, who served on the County Board from 1970-90.

Instead, commissioners will focus on a policy that prevents encroachment with new road construction.

County Highway Engineer Tyler Koos is asking for the policy to remove hazardous obstacles from county road ditches and from a safe zone beyond the ditches and the right-of-way. Hazards such as immovable resort signs, boulder-lined driveways of even placing "for sale" vehicles in zones could be fatal for errant drivers.

"For federal dollars, I have to sign a document that rights-of-way are clear and will remain clear," Koos said of road and bridge work done with federal funding. He said if a crash occurred within a right-of-way by striking a hazard, the county could be liable.

But Benson said that the way the policy is written, many farmers' fences would have to be removed as they are within the safe zone, or "recovery area," as many older county roads have no shoulders or narrow rights-of-way, or both.

"A lot of roads were built years ago -- County Road 32 is a narrow road with narrow ditches," he said. "Farmers have done a good job of getting fences at the edge of the ditch.

"But fences are only a part of the problem," Benson continued. "Look at County Road 20 along the north side of Lake Bemidji. You'd have to cut the trees. A lot of county roads have big trees."

Benson said that Koos' "goal is good, but it isn't going to work."

Koos' latest policy draft defined encroachment as "any building, fence, sign, billboard or other structure or object of any kind ... placed, located or maintained in, on, under, or over any portion of highway right-of-way." Utility poles were exempted, as well as signs with breakaway standards.

He also defined "recovery areas" as obstacle-free zones measured from the edge of the traffic lane, which vary by the amount of traffic. For instance, a road with up to 49 vehicles a day would have a 7-foot recovery area, up to a 30-foot recovery area for a road with more than 1,500 vehicles a day.

The recovery area is key for Koos, but the right-of-way in many cases extends up to 66 feet from the road centerline, and he wants that included too.

"This is probably a huge effort," said County Board Chairman Jim Lucachick. "It could probably be years' worth of effort."

Under the proposed policy, an offending property owner would be given notice to remove the hazards within 30 days or the matter would be referred to the county attorney, or the county would remove the hazard at the owner's expense, or both.

"You'd make agricultural fences move," Lucachick said.

"If in the right-of-way, yes," Koos said. "It's a matter of state statutes. I'm just looking for policy for guidance."

But Commissioner Jack Frost said apparently there has been no problems with not following the state law on encroachments. "We've been in violation, as are other counties, no doubt."

"If the state of Minnesota and the county of Beltrami participated in denied neglect ... I have a high degree of skepticism to do anything," said Commissioner Joe Vene. The policy "could create a lot of grief."

Lucachick, an architect, said a policy similar to that of the state building code should be modeled. When changes are made to the state building code, they only affect new construction and don't go back to fix all previous buildings.

"The policy should address the fact that when there is a new project, that rights-of-way need to be brought up to statute," he said. "You propose to go and remove everything."

The policy could also take effect with substantial changes to an existing roadway, he added.

Lucachick also asked if there had ever been a lawsuit filed against the county in 10, 20 or 30 years as a result of a crash in a right-of-way involving a hazard. County Attorney Tim Faver said there hasn't, in at least 20 years.

It was the consensus of the board, with Commissioner Jim Heltzer absent, to have Koos return with another draft policy to express that it would regulate encroachments only for new or substantial road construction.

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks then asked that the first reading be tabled until then.

In another County Highway Department matter, commissioners approved the responsible low bid of $273,516 from Gladen Construction Co. for removing a County Road 101 bridge over the Blackduck River and graveling approaches.

Reierson Construction had also bid on the project, at about $100,000 more.