Hope School

Dale Wilker, a former student at the Hope School in Somerset Township, has been one of the main advocates for preserving the building and its accompanying property as the local community center. The purchase proposal previously awarded by the Steele County Board of Commissioners may fall through with the denial of a rezoning request, meaning that the other purchase proposals — including one that would preserve the property as is — are back on the table. (Press file photo)

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.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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