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Rezoning of Hope School property denied, sale in jeopardy

It has been over a year since Steele County solicited a request for proposals on the plot of land that houses the Hope School in Somerset Township, and despite selecting a proposal last summer, the process may have to begin again.

During the Steele County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, the commissioners — with the exception of Commissioner Jim Abbe who was absent — unanimously approved a resolution to deny a rezoning request that would have changed 1.47 acres of the Hope School property from Rural Residential to Industrial. The request came from Victor Mrotz, the owner of Hope Creamery, whose plan was to construct a warehouse or storage building on the Hope School property to be used as a part of his creamery operation. The purchase was contingent on Mrotz’s ability to achieve different zoning requests and variances for lot sizes.

“The Planning Commission didn’t feel that the rezoning would impact the environmental or agricultural goals of the comprehensive plan,” said Dale Oolman, zoning director for the county. “However, there was a goal in our comprehensive plan that states no new spot zones should be created, and based on that this would create an industrial zone in an otherwise residential area which would be contrary to that part of the goal. Therefore the commission is recommending the denial of his request.”

Mrotz’s purchase agreement was a point of contention for some residents in Hope, who had been hoping the proposal would have been awarded to the Hope Businessmen’s Club so that the school building and neighboring playground could remain in place as the Hope Community Center. Several letters were submitted to the Planning Commission opposing the rezoning, most of which said construction of a warehouse would change the atmosphere of the small town.

“The Hope Community Center is our “oasis” to enjoy and we want to preserve it as such,” wrote Carol Wilker. “We have children in town that play there and we as a community worked so very hard to put on Hope’s 100th anniversary which was quite a success. The moneys raised helped pay for the playground equipment. There’s a new generation of children here that will make use of the playground along with the older ones that have all that area to enjoy.

“How beautiful to have the open field and landscape adjoining the school and playground,” Wilker continued. “It is a tranquil place to sit in the evening overlooking the field and countryside.”

Myron and Nancy Spindler wrote that the nine family homes within 100 yards of the property that would be rezoned would potentially be disturbed by the noise of the refrigeration trucks from the creamery that could be stored in the proposed warehouse. Their letter also started that it would impose added expense to the township to rebuild the road to accommodate heavy truck traffic and snow removal.

Property owners Doug and Cindy Finch submitted the one letter to the Planning Commission in favor of the rezoning.

While the Board of Commissioners agreed that it would support the recommendation of the Planning Commission, Commissioner Greg Krueger noted that this was the third item that has come before the it in the past six months that have been contrary to the county’s comprehensive plan.

“I would like us to consider possible reviewing the plan to take a look at changing the landscape of the farm land and these sorts of things,” Krueger said. “I think it’s time we really take a different look at some of this stuff, and maybe it would come out the same, but I would almost bet it wouldn’t. We have farmers who are making $2-a-bushel of corn and maybe some of them would like to do other things with their property that they aren’t allowed to do. Maybe we need to look at this and find a plan that leaves some room for allowances for things that are properly vetted.”

Krueger said his request to review the plan is not because he disagrees with the Planning Commission, adding they are doing exactly what the plan allows or tell them to do.

According to County Administrator Scott Golberg, the sale to Mrotz could still go through if Mrotz decided to re-evaluate his design, though the decision is ultimately up to him. Because the denial of the rezoning could mean the failure of the purchase proposal, however, Golberg suggested that the commissioners reconvene and review the original request for proposals on the Hope School property.

Steele/Waseca Drug Court celebrate trio of grads virtually

The Steele/Waseca Drug Court celebrated three new graduates Wednesday. This year’s ceremony was held virtually to accommodate social distancing restrictions.

The drug court team, Judge Joseph A. Bueltel and James Eberspacher (Director at National Center for DWI Courts), met virtually to celebrate the accomplishments of their program graduates. Graduates’ friends and family were also encouraged to join the ZoomGov meeting. Others interested in watching the virtual meeting could do so by visiting the Steele County Courthouse.

“We are very excited to acknowledge all the hard work put forth by our participants to change their lives,” Drug Court Coordinator Nicole Grams wrote in an email prior to the commencement.

On Wednesday, Alison Johnson, Janiffer Miller and Adam Lopez became the program’s 60th, 61st and 62nd graduates.

So far Steele/Waseca Drug Court has served around 197 people, with 93 participants either withdrawing from the program to serve their jail time, transferring to another drug court, terminated due to new criminal activity or refusing the services provided. The five-step program currently has 45 participants. The total number of sobriety days among the group is 10,977 or about 30 years combined. The average sobriety for a program participant is 243 days, according to Grams.

Eberspacher representing the National Association of Drug Court Professionals was also in attendance. Eberspacher was the former Minnesota State Drug Court Coordinator when the Steele/Waseca Drug Court was first started and is an ex probation officer. He was responsible for completing site visits at each court site during his program evaluation for the association.

“It’s heartwarming for me to be able to speak at events like this because they’re really truly important,” he said. He added that he likes to see the life changes people make and the “Minnesota nice” of supporting and helping others.

Often people in the justice system are assigned numbers, which can silence a person’s voice, story, emotions, ideas and values. Numbers are impersonal.

“This team knew your name from day one,” Eberspacher said to the graduates. “Alison, Janifer and Adam, you’re not numbers, you’re individuals.”

Other members of the drug court team gave words of advice and congratulations to graduates.

Alison Johnson

Alison Johnson stands with the plaque she earned through the Steele/Waseca Drug Court program. (Photo courtesy of Kaiya Martin)

Johnson began the program mid-January 2019, entering following a charge of first-degree possession of controlled substance. As a result of completing the program, Johnson avoided a 65-month sentence. She completed 132 tests during her time in the program and is on day 321 of her sobriety journey as of Wednesday.

“I feel like I’m ready to be able to keep myself accountable,” Johnson said. She says she looks forward to finally moving on, being a mother to her child and focusing on her goals. One of which is to get her driver’s license.

Grams described Johnson as quiet and humble.

“Your whole focus has been how to take care of your personal health, how to take care of your personal recovery and how to be a better parent and how you continue to be a better daughter,” Grams said at the commencement.

Johnson thanked the team for holding her accountable.

“I got to remember that addiction is a lifelong process,” Johnson said. “I have to monitor it and be aware.”

Janiffer Miller

Janiffer Miller with her plaque from the Steele/Waseca Drug Court program. (Photo courtesy of Kaiya Martin)

Miller entered the program after being charged with felony terroristic threat, two counts of felony violating orders for protection and a gross misdemeanor DWI. She has been in the program since Feb. 2, 2017. She had been at risk of incarceration for 21 months. During her time in the program she took 317 tests and spent 495 days sober as of the commencement.

“You worked through a lot of adversity during the time that you have been in our program,” Grams said. “You were able to pull yourself up each time.”

She has a strong connection to fellowship and the recovery community, whether it is attending the softball and kickball tournaments or making connections with others in recovery.

“I encourage you to continue to be a role model for others that don’t have to show perfection when they go through the program, but they can continue to show personal growth,” Grams said to Miller.

Miller wants to continue to focus on her recovery and connect with the network she has built during the program that will support her sobriety. During the commencement she said the program was great and that she is thankful for it.

“I’m grateful for the program and all of you,” she said.

Adam Lopez

Adam Lopez stands with his plaque from the Steele/Waseca Drug Court program. (Photo courtesy of Kaiya Martin)

Lopez joined the drug court in September 2018. He was supposed to graduate in March, but the pandemic delayed that. He came into the program with felony first-degree burglary and felony fifth-degree controlled substance possession charges. He was at risk of a 51-month sentence in prison, but has received a downward departure. Lopez completed 151 tests and has been sober for 777 days.

Grams added that Lopez, too, has a strong connection to his family, a strong work ethic and is committed to his recovery program.

She also mentioned how Lopez had become a mentor to his brother. At one point Lopez’s brother had shared on Facebook that watching Lopez recover motivated him to also seek recovery.

“I want you to know that others have watched and they have observed, and they too have looked to you to be a mentor,” Grams said to Lopez.

Lopez thanked everyone for their involvement in his recovery.

“I’m on a mission and I got my kids back and everything like that,” Lopez. He has gone on family trips to Duluth and is getting to experience new things with his family.

A brief look at the program

The six-year-old drug court program was created to help high risk and high-need substance abusers that were continually coming in and out of the court system.

The drug court program is voluntary, and allows people with drug or drug-related offenses the opportunity to reduce their jail time by completing a substance abuse treatment plan and meeting certain requirements. The general requirements include completing a substance abuse evaluation and continued assessments, substance abuse treatment, attending regular drug court hearings, submitting to random drug tests, maintaining employment, completing their GED and obeying the law, among any other requirements for a particular participant. A participant must be in the program for a minimum of 18 months, according to the Steele/Waseca Drug Court website.

Evidence has shown that drug courts can be a cost-effective way to reduce drug use and crime. Program participants reported less criminal activity (40%) and fewer rearrests (52%) compared to similar offenders (54% and 62% respectively), according to the National Institute of Justice’s Multisite Adult Drug Court Evaluation. In addition, program participants reported less drug use (54%) than comparable offenders (76%). They were also less likely to test positive on a drug test than their counterparts (29% and 46% respectively). Although treatment costs were higher for those that participated in the program, the decrease in recidivism saved an average of $5,680 to $6,208 per participant, according to the evaluation.

Owatonna superintendent reacts to Gov.'s school announcement

Owatonna School District will not announce which of the three models the district will be opening the school year with just yet. Instead it will wait until mid-August to make the announcement using the most recent local health data to make the determination.

“If we were to release today, we would be basing it off data that was released on July 18th,” Owatonna School District Superintendent Jeff Elstad said shortly after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced the state’s plans to return safely to school this fall, giving districts some flexibility to toggle between in-person and online learning, but reserves the right for the state to step in if the coronavirus gets out of control.

Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher, acknowledged the importance of schools and the value of in-person learning, but said the state’s top priority is safety. Districts will work with the state Health and Education departments to determine whether to use in-person instruction, online learning or a hybrid model, and will have the ability to become more or less restrictive depending on the virus.

The plan requires both public schools and charter schools to allow students and teachers to choose remote learning no matter what model the district chooses.

Next Tuesday, Aug. 4, the Owatonna district will deliver to parents the three models that the district is preparing for. It will be providing as much information about all three models as it can.

“So (parents) will understand in those different models how we will be conducting learning,” Elstad said.

If the number of COVID-19 cases changes, the school may choose to switch to a different model throughout the year. The district will have to remain flexible based upon the levels of COVID-19 spread.

The Owatonna School District is trying to plan a 24 hour buffer for situations in which it would need to switch from one model to another. For example, if the district learns from the public health officials that the county is reaching a point where the school district may need to switch their model, the district will not have school the following day after this discovery. The buildings would be closed for the day while the school district makes the transition.

“That gives our educators a 24 hour period to turn around and be able then to switch into that different model,” Elstad said.

The district received word from the Department of Education that these three models were the models the district needed to start preparing for back in June. The district team of administrators and staff have put in countless hours into the plans, while weighing factors such as rigor of education for students, relationships and safety according to Elstad.

Walz also mentioned in his announcement plan to invest $430 million in federal funding to support schools, teachers, students and their families as the pandemic continues. Locally, Sesker said that extra revenue would help offset the costs of extra transportation if the district implements a hybrid model, additional bus routes and more professional development for teachers.

Walz’s plan to relies on Public Health and determine the safety of going back to school based on cases per 10,000 in the county. He hopes the guideline gives individuals incentive to wear a mask to reduce the number of positive tests.

Republicans and some school officials had pressed Walz to leave reopening plans up to individual districts, arguing that local administrators know best how to protect students.

The guidance comes as coronavirus cases have been moving upward in some parts of the state. Minnesota reported 745 new cases on Thursday — slightly higher than the seven-day average — and five new deaths. State officials have warned of rising hospitalizations, but that number dipped slightly in Thursday’s data.

State health and education officials last month asked school districts to prepare for three scenarios: in-person learning for all students, distance learning as in the spring, or a hybrid learning scenario with social distancing and capacity limits.

President Donald Trump has pressed schools nationwide to open for in-person learning, and as many teachers have expressed fears of doing so. Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, last week released a survey with just one in five teachers supporting in-person learning.

Administrators for Minneapolis Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, said Tuesday they plan to start the school year Sept. 8 with distance learning. Their plan would require remote learning as the primary method of instruction, though buildings would remain open for tutoring, technology and mental health support for students and families.

Walz ordered Minnesota public and charter schools to close and switch to distance learning in mid-March as COVID-19 cases began to appear in the state, affecting nearly 900,000 students and their families. As the number of coronavirus cases in Minnesota grew, the governor extended the closure through the school year and prohibited large-scale high school and college graduation ceremonies.