Letters Public vote should be allowed on Chestnut
To the editor:
On Feb. 25, the Vermillion City Council held a special meeting to promote its decision to go forward with the development of Chestnut Street, which runs below the bluff between Dakota and University, at an estimated cost of $1.3 million. I do not write to either support or oppose the Chestnut Street project, but rather to protect the rights of citizens who wish to refer any decision made by the city council to a public vote.
I was on the council in December 2000 when the decision was made to approve the project. Within 20 days thereafter, a group of citizens circulated and submitted a petition to refer that decision to a public vote. On a relatively close vote, the city council voted to reject the petition and go forward with the project anyway. They did so on the pretext that the petition was submitted "too late."
I asked the city attorney when he thought that the decision was made, if not in December. He explained that he couldn't tell for sure, but that it certainly would have been made sometime earlier when the state approved a portion of the funding for the project. Therefore, the citizen petition was too late.
To justify its position, the council now says that the referendum statute is complex, difficult to interpret, and confusing. Unfortunately, the citizens who circulated the petition and collected the requisite signatures are simply "out of luck."
With all due respect, I disagree. The statute clearly grants the power of citizens to refer council decisions to a public vote. Moreover, it expressly states that the power of citizen referendum is to be "liberally construed." It's not complex at all. It's simple. If there are uncertainties, we give the benefit of the doubt to the citizens. If there are complexities, we give the befit of the doubt to the citizens. That is what the statute means when it says that it is to be liberally construed.
The very purpose of the statute is to afford citizens an opportunity to seek a public vote on controversial decisions made by the city council. It was not intended to grant that right with one hand, and to take it away with the other hand through complexities, difficult interpretations and unanticipated traps for the unwary. Recognizing the validity of the petition recognizes the rights of the citizen, while ignoring the petition without good reason tramples on those rights.
Looking at the council's justification for ignoring the petition, it appears that the council has decided that the actual decision would have been made by the state, not the council itself. That does present complexity. While citizens would be knowledgeable about any local decision made by the council, there is no way that any citizen could reasonably determine when the state had made such a decision. As a practical matter, that position makes it virtually impossible for citizens to refer any council decision to a public vote if the project depends upon state funding.
That does make it complex for the citizens who wish to have a decision referred to a public vote, while it also makes it simple for a council that wants to proceed with a project notwithstanding public opposition to it.
It's not too late for the council to do the right thing and permit the public vote. There are strong feelings on both sides of the issue, and there certainly are competitive demands for the use of $1.3 million of hard-earned taxpayer dollars. If the council believes the project is worthy, it should be able to explain it to the satisfaction of citizens who are expected to pay for it.
In any event, I firmly believe that the right of referendum afforded citizens is an important and valuable right. It's also a matter of respect for the rights of citizens. The council should never trod on that right.
Some observations about Chestnut Street
To the editor:
Many lengthy articles have been submitted to the editor regarding the Chestnut Street project, so I have been hesitant to add mine on this already well covered subject. However, at the prodding of many individuals, and with my desire to point out a few facts, I shall respectfully submit some of my feelings and observations. Since my family�s business, Vermillion Fertilizer & Grain, and its customers use Chestnut Street extensively, I think I have a few worthwhile comments to share.
I first want to send a word of appreciation to Mayor Kozak and the city council for holding the special Chestnut Street meeting. I think all who attended, for or against, learned something. I think some crucial facts were pointed out by the engineering firm�s representative at the meeting. One was that the current design was based off a standard set of guidelines used by the DOT and engineers for roads of this type. This set of guidelines is important in obtaining DOT approval (and funds), and it also appears to be used by attorneys when looking at safety and liability issues.
I think the liability issues for the city of Vermillion, for both the current road and for any future improved road, have been grossly ignored. I personally think if someone gets seriously hurt or injured on Chestnut Street, the city will get sued, and $1.3 million will be a small figure compared to that of the litigation amount. In response to many people tagging a higher cost than $1.3 million for the project, the engineer indicated his belief that, given current economic conditions, the actual cost would be below the estimate. I encourage anyone who has any concerns about the cost of Chestnut Street to watch the city�s taping of the meeting; I found it very informative.
It seems that many people assume very little traffic occurs on Chestnut Street and are unsure as to what type of vehicles actually use Chestnut Street. I would say in our related ag traffic on Chestnut Street, semis and large straight trucks are the most common vehicles. These are large, heavy vehicles.
Semis are approximately 60 to 80 feet in length, and usually weigh 80,000 pounds loaded. Straight trucks usually weight 35,000 to 60,000 pounds. I would say there is a definite trend towards semi ownership by the farmer, with current ownership probably reaching 60 percent to 70 percent.
We ourselves now own nine semis to transport grain and fertilizer. In regard to our traffic volume, Chestnut Street represents access to approximately 30 percent of our farmers� fields, which we transport fertilizer and chemicals to, and grain from. We also haul commodities to and from Sioux City, with Chestnut Street being our safest and most economical route. We haul 100 percent of our soybean volume, anywhere from 700,000 to 1,200,000 bushels per year, to Sioux City processing plants. Additionally, we haul approximately 13,500 tons per year of fertilizer from Sioux City barge docks.
I often hear that instead of us using Chestnut Street we and our customers should just use a different route. If Chestnut Street were a safe, usable road, it would be our preferred route to and from Sioux City because it would be the safest, most direct route. A route northward causes us to take our 80,000-pound semis up a hill, with a stop light or stop sign at the top, through at least seven blocks of residential area, past the foot traffic of the USD campus, and to either make the tight turn at the congested Dakota/Cherry intersection, or onto one of the high accident intersections onto the Highway 50 bypass.
This route also adds extra miles to our usual destinations. Extra miles and time, of course, means additional expense to our customers. Many customers have stated it is easier and safer to just take their grain to elevators to the east of Vermillion, rather than travel a sub-par road, or to travel though all the obstacles mentioned above.
Many alternative plans for the design of Chestnut Street have cropped up lately. Even though a hired engineering firm and the city�s own engineers have spent the past 13 years weighing pros and cons and seeking a road that would be approved by both the state DOT and the railroad, let us review a few of these plans.
One is a one-lane road with stop lights at the ends, much like the short stretch over the Yankton dam. Issues such as where vehicles (especially long vehicles like semis) can safely wait their turn and how to deal with stopped or stalled vehicles seem to make this an impractical idea. It might also be noted that semis are not allowed over the dam.
Some have suggested an alternate route by the water plant. The expense of upgrading the airport bridge and building an additional new bridge would seem to well exceed the cost of the current Chestnut Street plan.
A narrower road has been proposed, with 10-foot lanes cited as the cheapest route. I will simply state that 10 foot lanes will not work for truck traffic on this road, and especially not for farm equipment traffic. Ten-foot lanes are adequate on flat, straight applications with shoulders and ditches, but on a curvy route with an earthen wall on one side and a sharp drop off on the other, it is only asking for trouble. There are roughly three slight curves (on the portion of Chestnut Street needing repair) and everyone may not know that on a long multi-wheeled vehicle like a semi, when making even the slightest turn, the rear wheels do not follow the same path of the front wheels.
I am not opposed to looking at cheaper plans on any project, but folks, I think after 13 years it is time to move forward with the plan the experts have recommended.
I would like to express a few opinions on some of the safety issues expressed by some of the landowners that overlook Chestnut Street. Concern has been expressed in regards to how well the approved plan accommodates pedestrians and foot traffic. The approved plan with the 28-foot width is the widest proposed and seems to be the best plan to allow room for any non-vehicle activity.
The comment has been made that if we improve the road, there will be more speeding traffic on this road. As I have stated many times, the way to make a road safe is not to leave it unsafe. The proper way to enforce the speed limit is to post signs and with law enforcement, not by the continued use of an uneven, narrow road.
Some landowners are afraid that children may play on the retaining wall and get hurt. To me, the possibility of children playing on the retaining wall seems no more dangerous or possible than what the current situation offers. Is the city having problems with children playing more on the new retaining walls on Dakota Street, than they did on the previous bluff layout? Actually, I like the idea that if children are playing in an area they should not be (and we do hope that parents are instructing their children properly where to play and not play), that they be on an engineered, sturdy wall, rather than an undeveloped, loose bluff area.
I can appreciate the landowners above Chestnut Street having concerns about erosion, living where they do. What does surprise me, though, is that that concern relates to the city�s current Chestnut Street plan. To me, it appears that the current design takes extraordinary precautions against disrupting any of the bluff to the north, and significantly stabilizes the road base and area between the road and railroad tracks. This means an overall more stable bluff situation for those landowners. Certainly much better than what currently exists.
I can almost guarantee that this area will see increased stress and vibration, not due to the traffic on Chestnut Street, but due to the changes made recently on the BNSF railroad line. The BNSF has recently upgraded the track which could result in an increased speed of approximately 25 miles per hour. The BNSF is also trying to make its base unit 110 cars instead of 54, and is using bigger, heavier cars for those units. The bottom line is our railroad line is using longer, faster, heavier trains more frequently. I wonder if the current road and bluff environment will continue to hold up without some type of reinforcement? Also, this would seem to make any situation where a vehicle has gone over the bluff and onto the tracks twice as dangerous.
Another item that I have been a little surprised about is the amount of time we have spent on the issue of lights on Chestnut Street. I am personally to the point where I do not care if there are lights on this road, but if you are truly concerned about safety, a well- lighted road is definitely safer than a dark road. I would think this would be especially true of a road with a wall on one side and a cliff on the other. Would lights not ease the concerns of those worried about pedestrian/bike traffic and the children playing in the area?
The current lights proposed seem to illuminate the road, but do not allow excess light to shine upward on the landowners. To me, this seems like a fair compromise, but if the landowners still feel adamant about no lighting, I feel we should not lose the war for the sake of one battle. Perhaps we could upgrade the road without lights, and install them later if safety and situations deem them necessary. One note in relation to nighttime farm-to-market traffic, it is very common for the spring planting and fall harvest activities (approximately two months each) to go past 10 or 11 p.m.
Alderman Yelverton has had a considerable amount of input regarding the Chestnut Street project. The city council has heard much input on the issues of lighting, safety, and use of Chestnut Street from her. I feel this is quite appropriate as she is an adjoining landowner to this project, and has much to offer. I do hope, however, that Alderman Yelverton will be sensitive to the issues of objectivity and conflicts of interest when additional motions and votes are made to the city council, and abstain when appropriate.
I am not stating that she would not act properly and with these motives in mind, I am simply stating that if they have the possibility of becoming an issue, the possibility should be avoided. If memory serves, there was much discussion on this when issues involved Clay Rural Electric and USD employees, who were also city council members. In all honesty, I myself, would probably not be able to be objective when weighing safety and the need of others, against increased traffic, noise, and lighting created for my own home.
I have heard repeatedly that $1.3 million is too much money for this project, and that that money could be better spent on other items, like our school system. I too would love to find additional ways to fund our school, given recent developments, but as was explained at the city council�s meeting, the funds already in place for this project cannot be redirected to the school. The $700,000 comes from state funds earmarked specifically for projects like road upgrades and improvements. The balance comes from the second penny sales tax, also earmarked for the same type of projects.
Perhaps the statement that bothers me the most is that �we are spending all this money to help only one business, Vermillion Fertilizer.� I think there are a lot of other businesses people are forgetting in what I prefer to call �original Vermillion� (rather than �lower� Vermillion). Some that come to mind are the city�s own water treatment plant, the municipal airport, a BNSF maintenance station, Don�s Repair and Barry�s Plumbing. There are storage locations for the city, Stewart Oil & Tire, Fullerton�s, Heine Seed Company, and Mart Auto Body & Marine.
Potential still exists in a former salvage yard and remaining portions of the closed Farmer�s Elevator owned by Jensen Pipe & Steel. There are also multiple farmers raising livestock and crops on the south side of Vermillion. But, for a moment, let us pretend that certain individuals are correct, and that Vermillion Fertilizer is the only business that will benefit from a better Chestnut Street. How big does a business in Vermillion need to be before decent access to and from is deemed justifiable? How many jobs must they offer? How many local customers must they affect? How many dollars of sales must they do?
Please allow me to share some facts about Vermillion Fertilizer. Vermillion Fertilizer has been in business for over 30 years. In the past 10 years we have taken two closed elevators and built them up to an almost one million-bushel grain storage facility. In the past two years Vermillion Fertilizer has issued over 100 W-2s per year.
We service well over 200 farm businesses in Clay County and all its adjoining counties, averaging over $11 million annually in sales. Anything which causes us greater expense or reduces our profitability means higher fertilizer and chemical costs, and lower grain prices offered, to our customers. The majority of these ag customers do some type of business with our retail Vermillion businesses. So tell me, is one business truly the only one that benefits with better �original Vermillion� access?
We have been willing to live with sub par access for our business until now for two reasons: 1) We feel we must be located on the rail line in order to survive. Rail transportation is the cheapest way to transport bulk commodities like fertilizer and grain. Most South Dakota elevators without rail access are struggling or closed. 2) We, as owners, were born and raised here. Due to a desire to live and raise our children here, we choose to invest our money and business efforts here.
While we are not currently considering selling our business (and I hope this statement does not start those types of rumors), at some point in the future, we will. One has to wonder, would any future buyers of our ag businesses be interested if access to and from is not adequate? When it comes time for us to �get out of the business,� will our facilities sit closed and empty like S&H Grain and Farmer�s Elevator when they chose to close their doors?
When looking at issues of access and infrastructure for the city of Vermillion, we must think long-term and toward the future. If adequate access does not exist, current businesses will close, and future businesses will not come.
Although I have much more to add, I will close my letter with an invitation for anyone with questions about my comments, or our use of Chestnut Street, to please contact me anytime at my business. My phone number is 624-5110, and my business is located at 611 W. Broadway, in the developing �original Vermillion� area.
Vermillion Fertilizer & Grain