BRITT | Two paper signs vouching for the existence of more than a dozen pine trees along the west side of James Avenue just south of Britt were placed at the same location after the Hancock County Board of Supervisors postponed a decision determining their fate in late August.
The signs, which say, “Contact Hancock Supervisors,” “I speak for the trees,” and “Save us,” are the result of discussions — some heated — between the supervisors and residents in recent weeks at crowded county board meetings.
The trees, or rather their location, have been the issue.
“I want the law to be the law,” said Doug Verbrugge of Britt. “I don’t care if you have four trees, 40 trees, you’ve been a supervisor for two years or 20 years, you treat everybody the same.”
Verbrugge said the trees, which are located at the corner of James Avenue and 220th Street, are within the right-of-way, and according to state law pertaining to obstructions, they need to be removed. But the county board hasn’t been too eager to do so.
Board Chair Sis Greiman said that’s because if the county board decides to remove the trees it could set a costly precedent for Hancock County. That’s because the county would have to use resources to remove the trees currently at issue as well as remove all obstructions in the right-of-way within the county.
“This is a concern of citizens and of taxes,” she said. “The expense comes out of all the obstructions.”
In an effort to make the intersection safer, the Hancock County Board decided to lower the speed limit to 35 mph on James Avenue before 220th Street to the Britt city limits earlier this summer.
“We slowed it down make to it safer, instead of tearing out the trees,” Greiman said.
But Verbrugge said the county’s action affirms there’s a problem at the intersection.
Other suggestions that have been made to avoid removing the decades’ old trees are removing some of the trees to improve sight lines, creating a four-way stop or installing a flashing reduced-speed sign.
“What’s wrong with meeting in the middle?” said Supervisor Jerry Tlach, who suggested removing some of the trees.
Greiman said she’s phoned state, county and city officials to determine what the “right decision” is for the trees and the county’s future right-of-way issues.
One of the individuals she called was Sen. Dennis Guth, who popped into the Aug. 28 supervisors meeting.
“It’s the responsibility of the supervisors to use the money of the taxpayers as responsibly as they can ... Are there better places to use that money? That’s your decision. You have to work for your constituents,” he said.
After nearly an hour of discussion the board decided to postpone a decision on the trees at the request of Greiman, but it didn’t come with some resistance from Supervisor Ron Sweers.
“Take another week, Sis,” he said. “It’s still there. It’s still an obstruction, and we’re still liable. It’s not going to change.”
Sweers suggested numerous times during the meeting to have just have the county engineer follow the law and remove obstructions in the right-of-way, but Hancock County Attorney David Solheim said the supervisors have to determine “some guidelines” to follow: What constitutes an obstruction? How should one be removed? Who pays for it? What’s the process for a resident who wishes to appeal the policy?
The county board asked Solheim in collaboration with Hancock County Engineer Adam Clemons to create a draft policy and present it at the board’s Sept. 5 meeting.
At the meeting, the county board received input from a crowded board room.
“It’s basically what we do now,” Greiman said. “We’re just putting a little more meat on the bones for how we do things.”
Greiman said the second draft of the policy will likely be discussed at the supervisors’ Sept. 18 meeting.
And as for the trees? She said the board hasn’t determined what to do with them yet.
Discussions about obstructions in the right-of-way in Hancock County aren’t new to the county board’s agenda. This spring, the supervisors, at the recommendation of Clemons, decided to step up the county’s enforcement of farming in the public right-of-way.
The Hancock County Engineer's Office increased enforcement along rights-of-way due to damage on drainage structures and soil erosion.
There had been instances where farming equipment had ripped off the end of a culvert and buried tile intakes. Erosion caused by the practice has also filled up some culverts, impacting drainage, Clemons said earlier this year.