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Some neighbors protest, but Courtland gun club allowed to move forward

A new, and likely improved, gun club is set to replace the old River Ridge Gun and Archery Club in rural Nicollet County, after the county determined that conditions were satisfactory for the project to move forward.

At its July 28 meeting, the Nicollet County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of a conditional use permit, with 38 added conditions, to allow a new, expanded club to take the spot of the old River Ridge club near Courtland. The two “No” votes, from commissioners Denny Kemp and John Luepke, had more to do with process than opposition to the project itself. There was concern with new conditions added on and the exact language of those conditions, but neither commissioners indicated an issue with the development.

Regardless, the three votes in favor were enough to approve the CUP, meaning the property owners can move forward with their proposed business, continuing to work with county staff on approvals. It’s not without some complaints, as a group of neighboring property owners expressed varying concerns regarding the project. Those concerns, though, did not equate to any violations of zoning rules in the county, according to staff, and the Planning and Zoning Board, and then the Board of Commissioners, agreed.

Approval process

Property owners Christine and Joe Michaletz have had some delays in getting their gun club project off the ground.

The River Ridge Shooting Club is planned to have a much bigger clubhouse, including a lounge and bar area for members, than what the old course had. (Photo courtesy of Michaletzes)

In late 2018, the couple purchased the 115-acre property of the River Ridge Gun and Archery Club, which had by then closed down. Shortly after, they purchased another 45 acres on the property’s north side, adding space for an expanded club.

The developers moved ahead in summer 2019 with earthwork on a portion of the property, mostly flattening the grade. The work also included site preparation and the construction of building pads for a storage building and a covered shooting area. But the developers had not obtained a needed conditional use permit to perform the land alteration. They were able to apply for an after-the-fact CUP, which was recommended for approval by the Planning and Zoning Board and approved in January 2020 by the Nicollet County Board of Commissioners.

After that, the owners needed to apply for amendments to existing permits, because the River Ridge permits only allowed for shotgun use, and the Michaletzes hoped to add several other services to their club. The new and extended CUP, approved by the commissioners July 28, allows for: shooting of pistols, rifles, and archery, in addition to the use of shotguns; gunsmith and archery services; sales of firearm and archery accessories; special shooting related events; various firearm and archery training courses; and club membership amenities.

There is a lot of open space for the Michaletzes to work with, as they aim to add services, including rifle shooting, at the River Ridge Shooting Club. (Photo courtesy of Michaletzes)

The new CUP first came to the Planning and Zoning Board June 15. The discussion lasted a few hours and was ultimately tabled to a second meeting on July 22, due to the number of questions some commission members still had. After receiving recommended approval of the CUP, with 36 conditions, from the Planning and Zoning Board at the July 22 meeting, the matter was taken to the Board of Commissioners.

The Board of Commissioners’ approval was the final public board approval needed, although the commissioners still need to finalize one condition, regarding what type of ammunition will be allowed at the gun club. County staff determined that it would need to do some research before getting the exact wording for that item.

Concerns

Throughout the process, a number of neighbors issued complaints.

Veleda and Wade Cordes live south of the gun club property, and they expressed concerns related to “stray bullets, noise, dust, traffic, speed limits, road damage and setbacks.” They said safety was their primary issue, and Veleda noted that the horses on their property get spooked from the sound of the gunshots going off, and their health can be impacted.

Neighbors Josiah and Emily Stoering also testified, citing safety, noting that the owners cannot control every client’s actions. Emily referenced the children that use the nearby road, and she expressed concern about the area losing the peace and quiet that residents there value. Another neighbor, Gary Zimanski, also testified with similar concerns.

A possible new gun club is in early development outside Courtland in Nicollet County, replacing an old gun range in the same location. The developers received a new CUP, allowing expanded services at the club, including rifle and pistol shooting. (Image courtesy of Nicollet County)

Representatives of the Courtland Township Board of Supervisors also spoke over the course of the meetings, noting that they did not yet have a solution for the road, 547th Lane, that leads to the property. The road is narrow and has issues with water drainage, according to the supervisors.

Another big concern among complainants was the handling of noise violations. The neighbors did not want to be responsible for measuring the noise and ensuring all standards are met. There were questions of who should be measuring the noise, how it’s measured, and how complaints are handled.

The Michaletzes attempted to answer any questions they could, and a number of conditions were put in place to alleviate other concerns.

Christine Michaletz noted that the gun range had been active since 1993 up until recently, and some of the property owners had moved onto their land after that time, knowing that the range was there. She said they were only restarting the gun club, with some expanded services, but all under statutory rules for safety. Joe Michaletz further addressed concerns about safety.

“We care about doing this project right,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time working with engineers, working with the NRA guidelines. The first thing is to be safe. There will be no projectiles that leave the range. We use the range appropriately, and we have a 30-foot embankment in the back and a gravel pit behind that. If you saw it, you would probably agree you haven’t seen a safer rifle range.”

Meanwhile, after consultation with the DNR, it was determined that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would be the authoritative body to handle noise complaints. If someone makes a complaint to the county, staff there would do its best to investigate the matter before sending it on to the MPCA, which has specialized equipment to measure the noise levels.

Regarding the road, one of the conditions of the permit calls for the owners to work with Courtland Township on a “satisfactory agreement,” which must be in place before development.

The business

With the public approval process mostly finished, the Michaletzes said they were feeling good.

“We’re pleased with the vote today,” Christine Michaletz said. “There was a lot of information there, but the commissioners took so much time gaining a clear understanding. What we’re proposing, it’s important to the area, so it was good they did that.”

There is still a lot to do before site development begins. The owners will need to work with engineers, architects and noise consultants to put together a final construction plan and ensure the facility can meet all needed safety and noise requirements. Along the way, they’ll need to work with county staff to get further approvals, before a permit is actually issued. They’ll also need to work with Courtland Township on the road agreement.

They do have a general plan for the club, though. They hope to rename it River Ridge Shooting Club, representing its expanded offerings.

Clay shooting stations are already set up, as part of the River Ridge Gun and Archery Club. (Photo courtesy of Michaletzes)

“Our plan is to continue the existing activity of shotgun sports. We’ll be making some improvements to the sporting clays course, and we’ll be adding a few more trap fields,” Christine Michaletz said. “And then the new activities will include outdoor archery, pistol shooting and rifle shooting.”

They are eyeing a 15-station course for sporting clays (shotguns). Each station might hold one to four persons. There will be an additional four trap shooting fields, which each accommodate five shooters at a time.

The rifle range will have four shooting benches, reserved in one-hour increments, making it “a very controlled activity,” according to Christine Michaletz.

The pistol range will have five shooting bays, “and that will be great for instructional training,” Christine Michaletz added. Lastly, there would be three fixed line outdoor archery ranges with targets at varying depths.

Outside of the shooting areas, the Michaletzes hope to have a clubhouse facility that will contain offices, a retail space, a catering kitchen and a lounge and bar area. As part of the permit conditions, if a license to serve alcohol is obtained, shooters will not be allowed to consume alcohol on site before or during shooting.

The facility, as a whole, would be open to the public, but the lounge area would be members only, for the most part.

The owners hope to offer something that can’t otherwise be found in the region. Christine Michaletz noted that they will be one of the few places where conceal and carry classes can take place and where hunters can site in their rifles in a space controlled for safety.

“And really, a lot of what is inspiring us to take this to the next level has been the public demand,” she said. “We’ve been hearing from a lot of people, particularly conceal and carry instructors, hunters, shooting enthusiasts.”

There is no timeline yet for the beginning of construction or for an opening.


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Local medical community supports mask mandate; law enforcement considers how to enforce

On Saturday, July 25, a new mandate went into effect statewide, calling all Minnesotans to wear masks in indoor public settings, if they are able to do so. The mandate is an attempt to quell the spread of COVID-19, which continues to impact communities across the United States.

It’s a statewide order, but members of local communities, of course, have their own opinions.

The medical community across Minnesota has issued support for the masking rule, believing it can help slow the spread of the infectious disease and help hospitals avoid being overwhelmed; local hospital leaders echoed those sentiments. But perhaps no working group is more impacted by the mandate than law enforcement, as agencies and departments will need to make decisions at local levels on how to handle non-compliance and complaints related to the new mandate.

Medical community

The order from Gov. Tim Walz says “… people in Minnesota are required to wear a face covering in all indoor businesses and public indoor spaces, unless alone. Additionally, workers are required to wear a face covering when working outdoors in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained. Research has shown that use of face coverings can greatly reduce the risk of infection when combined with other prevention efforts such as social distancing and hand hygiene.”

For member of the local medical community, the new masking requirement is pretty straightforward.

“I support the governor’s mask mandate,” said David Larson, a doctor and chief of staff at Ridgeview Medical Center, which has a location in Le Sueur. “It helps prevent airborne transmission of the virus.”

That fact alone is enough to make the mandate favorable to most in the medical community. Slowing the spread of the virus is the goal. If the spread can slow, then contact tracing can help medical teams to stifle and eventually contain the virus. That strategy has been seemingly successful for a number of countries across the world.

Kim Smisek, RN, education coordinator at River’s Edge Hospital (left) guides Amanda Gronau, RN (right) in a pediatric care training session. River’s Edge Hospital has required masks for all staff and visitors since April. (Photo courtesy of River’s Edge Hospital and Clinic)

St. Peter River’s Edge Chief Quality Officer Janelle Rauchmann elaborated on the masks’ impact. She noted that many people have the virus without knowing it, and masking is all about preventing yourself from spreading it to others.

“The masking helps stop the germs from infecting others; it helps protect others, as well as yourselves,” she said. “I think the key there is that we know there are asymptomatic individuals, and they don’t even know their sick. And with so many asymptomatic individuals that the tests are showing, that’s why they’re recommending this. I think it’s a good thing; the more we can do to protect each other, the better we’ll be.”

Researchers believe the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is spread via droplets, which are released whens someone sneezes or coughs, but also just when one is talking or breathing out.

“Currently, they’re saying COVID is droplet, so surgical masks and cloth masks are enough to help,” Rauchmann said. “That’s enough to reduce the risk of you giving it to someone else.”

In terms of what impact the mask requirement can have, Ridgeview’s Larson said, “Our hope is that the mask mandate will slow down the spread of COVID-19 and, at the same time, continue to keep businesses open.”

Rauchmann said, “I don’t know that it will push the (infection) numbers down fast. My hope is that if everyone is taking the proper precautions, social distancing, wearing the masks, washing their hands, that will help us keep that curve from peaking and help us keep things under control.

Both Ridgeview and River’s Edge have been moving toward normal operation over the summer. Non-essential surgeries, which were temporarily barred across the state, are now allowed again, and that has helped many hospitals to get closer to normal revenues again. The hospitals are still taking extra precautions amid COVID-19, though, and are prepared for potential surges.

Law enforcement

It’s a completely different perspective for law enforcement workers, who do not need to have an opinion on the mandate but do need to deal with the impact it has on their work.

St. Peter Police Department Chief Matthew Peters said his biggest concern is contradictory direction from the state. He noted that the actual executive order has very specific language, calling for specific enforcement procedures, but then guidance from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety called for less rigid, education-based enforcement.

“The order does not say exactly the same things (as the guidance),” Peters said. “That can create confusion, because it’s presented as very serious, but then what is actually told to us might be different.”

The executive order lays out specific penalties for non-compliance. An individual who violates the order, and is not exempt from it in anyway, is guilty a petty misdemeanor, which may include a fine not to exceed $100. A business, owner or supervisor that does not comply with the order is guilty of a misdemeanor, which may include a fine of up to $1,000.

However, guidance sent out by Minnesota DPS Commissioner John Harrington to local law enforcement agencies notes the $100 fine option for individuals but encourages law enforcement to focus on education first: “It is important to emphasize that when a suspected violation occurs, education is the first priority. There are many reasons an individual may not be able to wear a face covering and advising the individual of the executive order and then providing a face covering (if available) is a best practice.”

The guidance also notes that an individual should not be arrested solely for failing to wear a face covering, but if the person refuses to leave the public premises at the owner’s request, law enforcement may determine an arrest, related to trespassing, is appropriate.

That type of advice seems to tow the line, according to Peters, who was still working out how his department would handle non-compliance in the days leading up to the mandate.

“It’s going to be very difficult for agencies across Minnesota to be mask police,” he said. “The commissioner notes that the issue has become increasingly volatile. He then passes the buck to local agencies and councils for how best to handle complaints.”

Peters had not made any final determinations on local policy and noted that things can change, but he said, “My thinking is that, if this is as serious of a concern for the public that it requires a public health mandate, then it should be OK for us to issues citation in response to violating the mandate. I find it hard to believe that we’d still need to educate people on this.”

He said the biggest concern is that this is a new law, going into effect quickly, and it’s quite broad in detail.

“I wish I had an easy answer, but we’re still working through how we’re going to handle this,” Peters said.


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Nicollet County eyes business assistance with CARES Act funding

Nicollet County knows it has $4.1 million in federal CARES Act funding to spend in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What it doesn’t know is how exactly those dollars should be spent.

The state of Minnesota recently distributed its dollars to counties, cities and townships, but it did not give specific direction on how those dollars should be spent. The dollars are not meant to replace revenue and they should be used only for expenses related to the pandemic. Also costs that the dollars go toward should be incurred by Dec. 1, so the money can’t be saved. Other than those basic rules, the entities seemingly have a lot of discretion in how to spend.

So while Nicollet County staff and elected officials have so far been clear that they want to use a significant sum on reimbursing county expenses (and therefore saving property tax dollars), they might still have a couple million leftover to distribute. The first priority for those dollars would be community-benefiting programs, like food shelves and eviction assistance.

But still, there may be dollars available for businesses, and that’s when things get more complicated.

The county estimates that over $2 million will go toward reimbursing itself for pandemic costs, including Public Health response, payroll and benefits, facility disinfection, technology, increased solid waste costs and unemployment costs. Staff then proposes sending sums, anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, to programs like the St. Peter Food Shelf, eviction assistance (helping people stay in residences), childcare assistance, community partner assistance, health and safety grants, livestock assistance, and Fair Board and Historical Society assistance. Staff also proposes sending $300,000 to local school districts to help with distance learning and technology costs.

Even after all of that, another $1 million may be left, which could be distributed to businesses through grants. But what businesses should qualify? Who should be ruled out? What should the maximum grant be? How much documentation would be required? There are a number of questions surrounding any business grant program, the most significant of which involve equity.

What staff proposed in a July 21 discussion with the Board of Commissioners was a program with $5,000 maximum grants. Only businesses with at least one employee and less than 20 employees would qualify, and they cannot be home-based. The businesses would have to demonstrate adverse impact from the pandemic. County Administrator Ryan Krosch indicated he would like to see some kind of documentation from the businesses applying, but he’d also like to keep the process simple and easy to utilize.

Krosch said Nicollet County’s program was inspired by Ramsey County, which already implemented a business assistance program in April. He also noted the Nicollet County program would be run by in-house county staff, as it would be “more efficient to do it in house.”

The biggest problem for staff and elected officials was leaving certain businesses out. Krosch noted there are 673 known businesses in the county, and 555 have 20 employees or less. However, the number of eligible businesses is further reduced when including the “at least one employee” and “not home-based” rules.

Commissioner Marie Drantell noted that those rules would leave out home-based daycares, who she knows are struggling. Commissioner John Luepke agreed that those rules might not be fair: “I don’t know; we might be walking on fire here.”

Krosch said the reason for the “at least one employee” and “not home-based” rules was to exclude businesses where someone only needs to work at home from their computer. He noted those businesses would be far less likely to be negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Another concern of Drantell’s was businesses that already have applied for some kind of city, state or federal assistance, specifically forgivable loans: “There has been some chatter that previous (Paycheck Protection Program) loans or other loans that were forgivable may no longer be forgivable if you take grant money from another entity.”

She added, “I think we need to be cognizant that this all can change completely tomorrow,” she said.

With feedback from the commissioners, Krosch said he and staff would continue fine tuning the plan, and staff intends to bring something back to the board in August.


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