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Belwin gets clear-cut clearance

A key Afton city panel recommended not punishing the Belwin Conservancy last week for a procedural misstep that apparently stemmed from a misunderstanding at Afton City Hall.

The conservancy drew criticism after some residents learned of a large restoration project and wondered if the organization had received the proper permits to do so, City Administrator Sarah Irvine said.

"I assumed they already had (a permit)," she said, noting that efforts behind the project began before she took her post as administrator. "And they did not."

The city's Planning Commission on Monday, Oct. 3, held a public hearing for an after-the-fact conditional-use permit for the project - a large-scale restoration on Belwin grounds.

Commissioners were tasked with deciding whether to approve a clear-cutting project aimed at restoration on its Stagecoach Prairie project that is already under way. The project involves clearing red pines, buckthorn and amber maple as part of "one of the biggest restoration projects in the state," said Belwin Conservancy Executive Director Steve Hobbs.

Afton ordinance requires a permit for clear-cutting trees in an area of 20,000 square feet or more.

Hobbs said he had informed the city of the project, but was never told a permit was required - a claim Irvine confirmed.

"It's not like they've been hiding stuff," she said.

Commissioners at the meeting unanimously agreed the organization hadn't attempted to shirk city policy - a reversal of opinion that last month had left some members voicing concerns.

The proposal received no opposition, however, at last week's Planning Commission meeting. In addition to supportive commissioners, the permit request faced no public concerns during the public hearing.

"Mostly I consider this to be a rubber-stamp process going forward," Commissioner Tom Nolz said. "The applicant has done really nothing wrong."

The issue now goes to Afton City Council, which will be the final arbiter in the permit request process.

After the meeting, Hobbs said he was satisfied with the Planning Commission outcome, but reiterated concerns with the process that led to the flap.

He said Belwin would like to help shape an ordinance change that applies to restoration efforts.

"We're not harming the land. We're healing the land," he said.

Though the commission didn't recommend any fines, Belwin is on the hook to pay for the permits, which total $350.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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