Nearby property owners in Wards 1 and 5 invited to session at The Shanty.

    A relatively small group of people living in Wards 1 and 5 – around 10 of them in all – attended an informational meeting Thursday evening on the Epitome Energy soybean crush biodiesel plant proposed for construction in their neighborhood, and in some instances their backyard, and they weren’t shy about asking questions and voicing pointed concerns.

    The meeting was hosted by Dale Stainbrook, Ward 5 council member and current presiding mayor, along with Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee and At Large Council Member Bobby Baird. CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth was also there to answer questions and provide the latest details on the project with an estimated price tag of $150 to $180 million.

    One definite theme that emerged during the session at the Irishman’s Shanty: There’s an interest among at least some of the eight homeowners along South Front Street and Ingersoll Avenue that are closest to the proposed plant in having their properties purchased. They would then be demolished. Hoiseth said Epitome Energy stakeholders would be interested in making that happen.

    “All these houses aren’t going to be worth crap,” one man said.

    Mary Jo Jobe said she and her husband have had their house on the market for 18 months or so. They’re asking $75,000, but any interest in it usually wanes when prospective buyers see its location tucked among all of the industrial activity. And that’s before Epitome Energy is built, Jobe said. “It used to be like living in the country; it’s not like that anymore,” she added.

    Hoiseth and the property owners represented at the discussion estimated that the eight impacted properties are worth, at the very most, $1 million total. Given the scope of the Epitome Energy project and investment, he said spending that kind of money to clear some homes out of the way is a relatively insignificant cost. But, Hoiseth stressed, any buyouts would be entirely voluntary in nature; there would be no eminent domain or forced transactions. If anyone would ever be interested in having their property bought, they could simply make that known and negotiations could begin with a fair market value in mind, he explained. Hoiseth added that buying the properties closest to the proposed plant was a topic of conversation very early in the Epitome Energy development talks, but it was put on the back-burner in favor of concentrating on other aspects of the development first.

    “You’re here as property owners and that’s part of the engagement we want to have, to be good neighbors,” Hoiseth said. “If there is a fair market value for the homes, the company is interested in that and doing what is best for you. …No one wants your property to devalue (because of Epitome Energy being built nearby), and if you don’t want to be there anymore, yes, we’re interested in helping you out, because it would be the right thing to do.”
Other topics and new information
    • The necessary infrastructure (roads, sewer, etc.) is expected to cost $15 million. Hoiseth said the City of Crookston will seek from the Minnesota Legislature in 2020 $7.5 million in the capital investment/bonding bill. The other $7.5 million would be financed in the form of a tax-increment financing (TIF) district with a maximum life of nine years. (TIF districts involve property taxes generated by a new development being reinvested in the development, typically to pay off debt. Once the TIF district expires, the property tax revenue goes to the taxing entities.)

    If the legislature doesn’t include the $7.5 million in the bonding bill, Hoiseth said officials are already looking at other financing options. But, he and Stainbrook stressed, the city council has no appetite to issue bonds and take on the subsequent debt to finance the infrastructure costs through the City.

    Hoiseth also stressed that no infrastructure would go in until a development agreement is officially signed and approved and Epitome Energy actually exists in Crookston. “We’re not putting a road in unless a soybean crush facility is there, absolutely,” he said.

    • Based on research into developments of a similar scope and function and also talks with the Polk County assessor, Hoiseth said the taxable value of the Epitome Energy plant would be approximately $30 million. After the TIF expires, it would generate around $1 million in property tax revenue annually. Around $220,000 of that would go to the state, but, he said, around $330,000 in new property tax revenue would funnel into the City’s coffers each year.

    • Infrastructure specifications put together by the engineers that would be detailed in the bonding request include roads that are all concrete. “It’s all hard-surface, concrete roads,” Stainbrook said. “There are no gravel roads in this whole operation.” Asked repeatedly by nearby property owner Bob Prudhomme if that means the City is in a position to require concrete roads, the council members and Hoiseth said that at this point the City has no way of forcing the project to have concrete roads. But everyone agreed that with the truck traffic, anything less than concrete would struggle to stand up to all of the weight and frost issues that arise each year with four distinct seasons and dramatic temperature extremes.

    • There were differing views in the room in regard to the noise and smell the Epitome Energy plant would produce. Those in the know have said the soybean processing produces a cereal-like smell. Thursday, Stainbrook specifically mentioned Frosted Flakes. But Prudhomme said he’s been told it’s more like hot oatmeal. Although that’s not necessarily a bad smell, he asked if that is something that a person would want to smell 24 hours a day, seven days a week on their property and in their home. “Just because a hot oatmeal smell doesn’t really bother you, does that mean you want to smell hot oatmeal all the time?” Prudhomme wondered.

    As for noise, Prudhomme said Epitome Energy will be louder than American Crystal Sugar and louder than SunOpta. “I don’t think any of us are going to be able to sleep with our windows open because of the noise,” he said.

    Whether it’s the smell or the noise, Stainbrook said he and other longtime residents living near the industrial park simply grow accustomed to it all after a while, even immune. He said he notices an uptick in truck traffic near his property during the sugar beet harvest, but beyond that, he’s learned to live with the various sounds and smells of industry on Crookston’s south end.

    As he has before, Prudhomme reiterated that he’s not against Epitome Energy building a facility in the “area,” but he reminded everyone in the room that to everyone’s knowledge a plant like this has never been constructed within city limits of any community; Crookston’s plant will be the first. Prudhomme said he’d feel a lot better if the facility was constructed a mile or two out of town. “I’m not against this coming to town, I’m against this coming to my backyard,” he said.

    To Fee’s comments that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will hold Epitome Energy to the highest environmental standards regarding things like noise and air quality, Prudhomme said Epitome Energy could meet all of the standards and be within all of the maximum environmental impact thresholds and still amount to an unpleasant experience in a variety of ways for people living nearby.

    Former mayor and longtime council member Wayne Melbye, acknowledging all of the questions being answered in the Shanty’s banquet room, wondered what would happen if the answers end up being incorrect later. “You’re answering these questions, but who’s guaranteeing you’re correct?” he said, sitting next to his son, Sam Melbye. “If this gets done and it’s noisy, dusty and it smells, what’s the recourse?”