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Beltrami County Board: Proposed highway encroachment policy receives cool reception

While state law prohibits obstacles such as signs and rock fences from road rights-of-way, there's little political will among Beltrami County commissioners to draft policy to enforce it.

Commissioners on Tuesday evening finished their first reading of a proposed right-of-way encroachment policy and set Dec. 1 for a second and public hearing.

"I am going to be a very strong advocate of a heavy grandfather clause," Board Chairman Jim Lucachick said. "Things should be moved only when something new comes in."

County Highway Engineer Tyler Koos has been pushing for a policy, saying the county is open to lawsuit should a vehicle strike a prohibited object within the county road right of way, or in the recovery area beyond the right of way, which is determined from the road centerline.

"I just see this as a problem," Koos said, citing liability risks. "It's my job to let the County Board know this and there should be a policy."

State law makes it a misdemeanor to alter the right of way of a highway, county state-aid highway, county highway or town road, such as by erecting or constructing driveway headwalls, advertising signage, building or storage or fence.

"In all these years, although there is some state statute, the state has assumed benign neglect, so what has precipitated this now?" asked Commissioner Joe Vene.

According to the draft county policy, an encroachment is defined 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."

A recovery area is an obstacle-free area measured from the edge of the traffic lane, while the right of way is measured from the centerline. The recovery area depends on the number of vehicles each day, such as up to 49 cars a day dictate a 7-foot recovery area, while more than 1,500 daily traffic means a 30-feet recovery7 area.

Permitted encroachments include such things as utility poles and break-away mailboxes.

The latest draft policy calls for "all encroachments within the right of way are to be removed," but that existing unpermitted encroachments when the policy is adopted can't be expanded, those presenting "an immediate and serious safety hazard to the public" must be removed and existing encroachments must be removed at the time of any major reconstruction of a county road in the area.

Also, the draft provides for all encroachments to be removed within a period of years to be determined by the County Board.

"My concern are farm fences to fence in livestock -- without a fence you will have livestock wandering out in the middle of the road," said Commissioner Jim Heltzer.

Koos disagreed, saying the policy is not to ban fences but to see them posted fully on the farmer's land and not in the right of way.

Heltzer said he also worried about trees that are in the right of way, saying the policy could force them to be cut. "There are some very tall, nice trees," he said.

And, Heltzer said he worried about political signs, which aren't visible unless they are in the right of way.

"If we adopt a policy, I'd be concerned about the economic impact to farmers and tourism," Heltzer said. "It's a good idea to protect the public, but we don't want unintended consequences."

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks said whatever is adopted should be uniform. Currently, highway staff may order a business sign removed but leave another business sign alone a mile down the road when both are in the right of way. "There's got to be a uniform way to do it and grandfathering some stuff in."

While not a public hearing, Lucachick allowed former Beltrami County Commissioner Rodney Benson and John Peterson to speak on the proposed policy.

The metro area has no problem with encroachment when there are four lanes of traffic with less than 50 feet right of way and traffic going both ways 70 mph, Benson said.

"So we're going to create a huge corridor in northern Minnesota?" he asked. "It's better off to have it the way it is. You can't improve what you've got."

Peterson seemed to stump Koos when he asked about buildings in Pinewood that are within 50 feet of the centerline.

"I don't recall any lawsuits from someone hitting something in the right of way," Heltzer said. "If it's not broken, don't fix it."

"We can't do nothing," Lucachick said. "But we need reasonable, rational policy and not one that by Jan. 1 seeks to remove anything."

Several agenda items were dropped as Lucachick said the County Board must by state law adjourn by 6 p.m., an off-year election year. Tuesday saw school elections at Kelliher and Red Lake.