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Battle over Belwin

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This year marks Belwin Conservancy's 40th anniversary, but being embroiled in a battle with the city is not the way its supporters wanted to celebrate.

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Afton Planning Commission discussed an ordinance violation during its Sept. 12 meeting.

Afton ordinance states that all clear cutting of trees in excess of 6 inches in diameter in an area of 20,000 feet or greater must have a conditional use permit.

Belwin Conservancy, which frequently clear cuts for restoration purposes, has never applied for a permit.

Last year, Belwin Conservancy began restoration work on its Stagecoach Prairie project, which resulted in the clear cutting of buckthorn, amur maple and red pine trees. The project encompasses about 44 acres.

Afton City Council heard of Belwin Conservancy's actions and looked into whether or not a CUP was required.

Belwin Conservancy Director Steve Hobbs said he informed city staff of the group's plans to clear cut for restoration purposes before the project even got underway, and at no point was he informed that a permit was required.

"Throughout the process, we were following the direction of Afton staff," Hobbs said.

However, when the possible ordinance violation was brought to the attention of Afton City Council, it was unclear whether or not the permitting requirement applied to Belwin Conservancy since the ordinance dealt with clear cutting in relation to development, not restoration.

"What has happened is that we are working with the city staff to try and come to a resolution on how to interpret this ordinance," Hobbs said. "What's upsetting to us is that there are accusations that we were somehow trying to skirt city code in anyway."

Hobbs said he has been working with city staff since June to understand the ordinance and how it relates to restoration work.

Hobbs' suggestion was to create an amendment that would address restoration projects in terms of clear cutting.

"I agree that the city should have a mechanism to make sure restoration projects are restoration projects," he said. "We're not trying to get any kind of special treatment; we just think there's a better way to do this."

After much back and forth, it was decided that Belwin Conservancy should have applied for a permit.

The CUP was on last Monday's agenda for consideration.

Planning Commissioners were not pleased with how events have transpired.

"It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission," Planning Commission Chairwoman Barb Ronningen said. "You should have applied for a permit long before you started the project. Somebody dropped the ball and to me it should be a fine, not a permit after the fact."

Planning Commissioner Dick Bend said the miscommunication stemmed from city staff.

"Clearly we have a failure from the regulatory standpoint," he said.

Ways to reconcile

During last Monday's meeting, Planning Commission members did not seem to come to any type of resolution in relation to the permitting issue.

"Belwin is a wonderful attribute, but that doesn't mean a permit shouldn't be in place," Ronningen said.

However, planning commissioners did reach a consensus that something needs to be done so that this type of issue does not come up again in the future.

"If Belwin is going to clear cut in the future, something needs to change," Planning Commissioner Tom Nolz said. "This should not have occurred, but I want Belwin to have a good reputation."

Hobbs said he hopes they can come to a resolution and said it would be unfortunate if Belwin Conservancy had to pay a fine, since it is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from members.

"I'd feel bad for our members that we have to use some of their donations for a fine," he said. "I hope we don't get to that point.

"We really are trying to adhere to whatever code that applies to what we're doing."

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Amber Kispert-Smith
Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.
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