LE CENTER — A hastily filed lawsuit aimed at allowing Le Sueur residents to vote on a new city nuisance ordinance within about two weeks was slowed to a judicial pace during a court hearing Tuesday.
The lawsuit was filed by members of a group called Le Sueur Area Concerned Citizens that opposes an effort to build a biofuel energy plant in the city. It was filed shortly after the Le Sueur City Council denied the group’s petition, signed by more than 600 residents, to have a special election for the proposed ordinance.
Thomas De Vincke, an attorney representing the group, asked District Court Judge Michael Baxter to order the city to have a special election no later than Aug. 9. The reason for quick action, De Vincke said, is it was required by city rules.
Citing the fact the lawsuit was filed Friday and the city’s attorney, Robert Scott, hadn’t had a chance to respond, Baxter said he wasn’t going to issue a ruling that quickly. Scott was hired on the fly by the city due to an undisclosed conflict of interest with the law firm that employs City Attorney Todd Coryell. Scott said it was his understanding city rules setting a timeline for any vote could be overridden by a judge’s ruling.
Baxter set the next hearing for Aug. 31.
“I’m reticent to do anything of this nature without having both sides provided with the ability to argue their case,” Baxter said.
There is no direct reference to the Hometown BioEnergy plant in the lawsuit, but the nuisance ordinance the group wants to pass would prohibit “noxious, unpleasant or strong” odors. It also identifies the accumulation of food processing waste, potato waste and animal manure as nuisances.
The Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, the utility that provides electricity to Le Sueur and several other communities, is working with Minneapolis-based Avant Energy to build the plant. It would convert 45,000 tons of agriculture and food processing waste into electricity by turning it into methane gas that would be burned. Two other byproducts of the plant would be liquid fertilizer and a solid material that could be turned into pellets that can be burned.
It would be built on a 35-acre site in a former gravel pit on the south side of Le Sueur that is surrounded by cropland, an airport and operating gravel mine, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency assessment of the project. The nearest home is more than 1,000 feet from where the facility and its storage areas would be located.
James Norman, one of several members of the Concerned Citizens group that attended Tuesday’s hearing, said the group wants residents to decide whether the proposed plant will be a nuisance.
“The citizens have the right to be heard and, up until this point, we’ve been completely ignored,” Norman said after the hearing.
Tom Tellijohn, a Le Sueur city councilman who also represents Le Sueur on the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency’s Board of Directors, described the lawsuit as a “misled effort.” He is concerned the nuisance ordinance, as proposed by the citizens group, could create unintended problems for existing businesses or other new businesses that want to move to the city.
“The irony of the whole thing is some of us on the City Council are against the project, but I don’t think this is the best way to address that,” Tellijohn said.
“An effort to rush this through has failed. Now we’ll have a chance to present our case.”