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Love is in the air in Blooming Prairie's new display
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Time to grab your valentine and head over Blooming Prairie to spend the day taking cute photos.

Once again Dan Peach, a Blooming Prairie police officer, has revamped the empty lot next to B to Z Hardware with a variety of photo opportunities to share with your loved ones at “Love in the Prairie.” After finding much success with his “A Very Prairie Christmas” display and pumpkin patch, Peach decided to continue the tradition.

“It’s been a fun hobby putting it all together before work,” Peach said, adding that he received some creative help from a local artist who painted the display signs.

A kissing booth inside “Love in the Prairie” at B to Z Hardware. (Photo courtesy of Dan Peach via B to Z Hardware)

The photo opportunities include a kissing booth, a living room scene, a life-size sweetheart candy box cutout, Valentine’s Day bench and a chain link fence for lovers to attach a wooden heart with their names to. The majority of the displays are within the greenhouse, allowing guests to avoid the cold.

“After the pumpkin patch and the Christmas display, I learned that people really want photo ops,” Peach said.

These holiday displays have a history of bringing in a significant amount of people to the small city of Blooming Prairie, thus boosting the local stores, some of which have been hit hard by the shutdowns and the pandemic.

“I’m trying to get people to our town to show them, hey, we have a vibrant downtown, we have places to eat, we have places to shop, we have gift shops, a whole bowling alley, all sorts of stuff,” Peach said.

Meanwhile, Blooming Prairie’s main street will be hosting ‘Tunnel of Love,’ a Valentine’s themed shopping event to support local businesses from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. There will be lunch and drink specials offered to people while they shop for a gift for their Valentines.

“Every business has something to offer,” Peach said.

A life size Sweathearts box is up inside the B to Z Hardware greenhouse. (Photo courtesy of Dan Peach via B to Z Hardware)

Peach said the best part of setting up “Love in the Prairie” is seeing how happy other people get when they are checking out the various displays. People are welcome to take pictures at “Love in the Prairie” day and night through Valentine’s Day. After that, Peach said he will begin working on a springtime themed display. He still has to come up with a clever name and display ideas.

Other ideas for your Valentine’s Day

Spend some time outside with your loved ones checking out your local park. All 75 Minnesota state parks and recreation areas will have free admission on Saturday, Feb. 13. This is the perfect opportunity to explore nature and walk down a snow covered path holding the hand of your loved one. Regional state parks nearby include Rice Lake State Park in Owatonna, Sakatah State Park in Waterville and Nerstrand Big Woods in Nerstrand. Or keep it more local by visiting one of your city’s parks.

If you are looking to do something more bold, lacing up some skates could be a good option. There are a number of places glide (or slip) around with a significant other. Visit the chalet at Morehouse Park in Owatonna or the Faribault Ice Arena in Alexander Park.

Or maybe you’d rather stay inside away from the cold. Consider ordering take out from your local restaurants to enjoy. Many small restaurants could use the support after the pandemic and shutdowns hurt local businesses’ finances. Contact or visit your local chamber of commerce website and some may have a database of restaurants available for curbside or take out.

Take an online class with the people special to you, check out the local Community Education organization to see if they have anything that peaks your interest. The Owatonna Community Education will be hosting a couple’s guide to massage on Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Roosevelt Community School. Or find a couples yoga or couples dance choreography tutorial online and follow along.

A local artist painted the Danny and Sandy cutout at “Love in the Prairie” in Blooming Prairie. (Photo courtesy of Dan Peach via B to Z Hardware)

Optical phenomenon in Owatonna’s sky
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A glance into the sky on Friday morning revealed an interesting circle of light around the sun as it rose for the day.

Near the horizon, an atmospheric optical phenomenon formed known as sun dogs.

A sun dog is a patch of sunlight seen on either or both sides of the sun. Sun dogs form when there are ice crystals in the air and sunlight shines through them and gets refracted or bent, not to be confused with the term “reflected.”

“When that happens, the colors of the white light from the sun form that sun dog appearance, it’s almost similar to how a rainbow looks,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jacob Beitlich said.

The ice crystals’ shape like a hexagonal plate works as prisms bending the light at a minimum of 22 degrees and refract the light outward to the left and/or right depending on where the ice crystals are present. Red light is deviated the least due to its longer wavelength, and thus creates the sun dog’s inner red edge.

While sun dogs aren’t rare, there needs to be specific conditions in order for them to appear.

“It’s just a matter of you being in the right place where the ice crystals are between you and the sun,” Beitlich said.

Friday’s sun dogs appeared near the horizon and lower in the atmosphere, which can happen in colder climates similar to the temperatures Minnesota is currently seeing. However, sun dogs can occur regardless of the season.

“You can see them in the summertime with the high cirrus clouds because those are actually made of ice crystals too. They’re so high up in the atmosphere, cold enough for ice up there so (sun dogs) can be year round,” Beitlich said.

Beitlich notes that the region is looking to have a long stretch of cold weather lasting through the next several days and possibly to next weekend. Temperatures and wind chill will be below zero for most of that time. While it’s going to be a dry forecast without the slippery roads, Beitlich reminds residents to bundle up when going outside and traveling.

“We still encourage people to pack a jacket, hat, gloves, boots with them when they travel just in case something were to happen and their (vehicle) were to break down. Charge your cell phone, something simple like that, where if you got stranded, you won’t be stuck out in the cold for long,” Beitlich said.

While some people may not be fans of the projected cold weather, it may offer up another opportunity to spot a sun dog.

As lawmakers take up forfeiture reform, local police say current safeguards are enough

As police reform continues to be a hot button issue, State Auditor Julie Blaha took to the Capitol this week to discuss the “big story in the small numbers” with legislators: forfeitures.

“In 2019, the average size of a forfeiture under $1,500 was $473,” Blaha said. “While having a minimal financial benefit to the public safety system, to a Minnesotan this could mean the difference between making rent and experiencing homelessness.”

Blaha argued at legislation bill hearings this week that forfeitures do not seem to be disrupting crime, but local law enforcement in Rice and Steele counties disagree with Blaha’s stance.

“Forfeitures impact the community more than the police department,” said Owatonna Police Capt. Eric Rethemeier. “When we make a vehicle seizure from a DWI or a drug offense, the seizing of the vehicle is a result of a threat to public safety. These are typically high-level DWIs or multi-time offenders and when we receive determinations on those cases we distribute the proceeds for DWI enforcement, training, or educational purposes.”

According to the most recent report from the state auditor, 94% of 2019 forfeitures in Minnesota were related to DWIs or controlled substance abuse. Vehicles accounted for 65% of property seized, while cash was 25%. Firearms can also be subject to forfeitures.

Locally, the Owatonna Police Department processed 19 motor vehicle forfeitures in 2019. However, only five of those transactions brought in net proceeds to the department, totaling just over $7,000. The Steele County Sheriff’s Office processed five vehicle forfeitures, keeping one to outfit for the new K-9 officer and handler/deputy and netting $13,000 from another. The other three vehicles did not produce any additional proceeds.

In Rice County, the Sheriff’s Office processed 12 motor vehicle forfeitures and one motorcycle forfeiture. Five were returned to the owner of lien holder, while the remaining eight brought in proceeds just over $20,000. The Northfield Police Department processed four vehicle forfeitures and saw net proceeds of just under $3,000, while Faribault Police saw net proceeds of $1,000 after processing five forfeitures.

Rethemeier said there is a misconception that forfeitures are policing for profit, but asserts that simply is not the case. Aside from the money that may be made following the auction of forfeiture vehicles going into public safety measures, Rethemeier said there is a strict set of guidelines and requirements law enforcement must already follow to ensure the forfeiture is warranted and just. Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, who has testified at the state Legislature regarding the forfeiture process in the past, said the intent of forfeitures is to stop the commission of criminal activity, but that isn’t possible if the process isn’t legitimate.

“We want to make sure we’re not depriving someone from their property if they are an innocent owner,” Bohlen said, adding that the forfeiture of vehicles tends to be the more controversial side of the debate. “You don’t get to just take someone’s property – you have to give them a receipt and a court date so they have the ability to argue it if it’s not fair, and sometimes the judge will say we have to give it back.”

In the proposed legislation, House File 75, efforts to protect an “innocent owner” during a forfeiture is one of the biggest pushes of the bill. The bill would provide the ability for a person to bring an innocent owner claim by notifying the prosecuting authority in writing within 60 days of the service of the notice seizure, which would allow the authority to release the vehicle to the asserting person. If the prosecuting authority proceeds with the forfeiture, they must within 30 days file a separate complaint.

While Bohlen said he understands the importance of protecting innocent owners, who he says are typically people who are unaware their vehicle is being used for criminal activity such as transporting drugs or driving while intoxicated, he believes the current checks and balances are doing an appropriate job already.

“The days of law enforcement just taking everything from watches to jewelry to jet skis has gone by the wayside,” said Bohlen, who has been in law enforcement for 31 years. “People knock forfeitures as policing for profit, that we try to take someone’s car and sell it on auction just to make some money, but the reality is we have a lot of forfeitures that are worth nothing and we actually have to pay to store it and eventually get rid of it.”

Both Bohlen and Rethemeier said that drug task force units typically see more forfeitures, especially of nicer vehicles. Any money from forfeitures from those units are controlled by a board and allocated to pay for operations and equipment needs. Bohlen said some motor vehicle forfeitures by task forces may be used for undercover vehicles for agents as well.

“I think sometimes there is a misconception that those proceeds are used for wage increases, but that’s not the case,” Rethemeier said. “That money never supplements any budget items and most definitely isn’t used to increases wages for officers.”

Restricting the seizure of cash and property valued at less than $1,500 is also a crucial to HF 75, with Blaha saying that restricting small forfeitures will have “big benefits with little costs.” Though both local police departments largely see only motor vehicle forfeitures, it could still impact getting vehicles that are involved in intoxicated driving infractions off the road. Bohlen said it is not uncommon for those forfeitures to be worth only a couple hundred dollars.

“Those are the things we end up getting stuck with and have to bring to the salvage yard at some point,” Bohlen said. “But we are taking them because they are an instrument used to continue to drive intoxicated and hurt the public, and often times it is a repeated issue.”

HF 75 would also restrict forfeitures for driving while impaired infractions, limiting it to first-degree only.