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By Sandy Schroth

Pipeline, drainage study draw crowd to Holt County meeting


February 6, 2020

Holt County citizens filled the county supervisors’ meeting room in the courthouse last Friday morning as the county leaders took care of business.

Bryan Steskal of Steskal read a letter penned by his wife, Diana Steskal, who was unable to attend the meeting.

In the letter, Steskal wrote the Holt County zoning board members denied TransCanada’s conditional use permit until two conditions are met, including one that requires obtaining easements. Many, she said will most likely be appealed. She also cited three federal court cases filed against the company, with oral arguments scheduled in March for one of them.

In addition, Steskal cited new eminent-domain lawsuits filed against TC Energy by Domina Law Office on behalf of 70 landowners, as well as a “lack of due process” suit filed on behalf of one landowner.

“Please do not make any quick decisions, there is no hurry,” she wrote. “If or when there would be a public hearing, I feel it should be for the tax-paying citizens of Holt County and not open to the travel buses loaded with union workers paid by TransCanada to attend.”

Grace Coleman of O’Neill also addressed the leaders about the public comment time at a meeting in November.

“At that time, one of the supervisors said we could not talk about the (TC Energy) road-haul agreement because it had been turned over to Domina,” she said. “In my personal experience, when I hire an attorney, I talk with them so that person knows what’s going on, what my needs are…If the people don’t give input to you all, then how does Dave Domina know what our issues are? If we’ve got a bad road here or a creek here or something like that.”

She reminded the leaders they are in control, not Domina. Supervisor Bob Snyder agreed.

“It has to come across this table, I don’t care who writes it up,” he said.

Coleman also cited resident’s second amendment rights, “In a public meeting like this, I don’t believe that we should be restricted on the topics that we wish to speak to.”

Two additional citizens voiced opposition to the pipeline; and a third county resident questioned if the proposed road-haul route had been released to the public.

Robert Latimer with TC Energy said the company had previously shared a map with the supervisors and mailed copies to affected township boards. One township board member present at the meeting indicated the map he received wasn’t clear enough to read.

Tielke handed the gavel over to supervisor Steve Boshart, due to a declared conflict of interest regarding the pipeline, during Latimer’s presentation to the board.

Latimer handed an updated, “more refined” map of proposed roads to the supervisors, road superintendent Gary Connot and county clerk Cathy Pavel. He summarized road assessment data, including 210 miles of Holt County gravel roads, 66 miles of county paved roads, 84 miles of state highway, nine bridges and 365 culverts. He said video documentation would be sent to Connot. The assessment was completed last summer/fall. It was noted copies of the map are available from Pavlik for a $1 per Page fee, as provided by statute.

Latimer said new maps will be sent to all affected townships by certified mail. He said letters were not certified last time. He also claimed TC Energy had followed up with phone calls to township officials that they “could reach.”

“My ask here this morning is to continue the work to finalize the haul-road agreement, as we have pre-construction activities, pipe hauling and pipe yards to build in Nebraska that will carry on this year,” he said. “It’s in your authority to do that and time is of the essence.”

Ronald Comes, an attorney with the McGrath-North law firm in Omaha that represents the pipeline builders, said a haul agreement, based on an agreement the county had for the Grand Prairie wind project, had been sent to Holt County attorney Brent Kelly in October.

“He thought it was urgent that attorney Domina be hired right away to help on the work on that agreement. We’ve subsequently been sending things to attorney Domina as well as attorney Kelly,” he said. “There are a number of different pieces that need to all fold together so we can be making use of the roads and protecting the county’s interests.”

He also addressed public comments made earlier, explaining his interpretation of Nebraska condemnation law. He said as soon as appraisals are complete and TransCanada deposits the appraised amount with the clerk of the court, the easement and right to move forward becomes effective, despite subsequent jury trials and appeals that he said will only deal with the amount of damages.

Boshart read a statement sent to supervisors by Kelly, “I think the road-haul agreement is the final piece of the puzzle which should be reserved for consideration after the zoning and condemnation matters are settled…Frankly, the biggest hurdle to getting a road-haul agreement is TransCanada’s refusal to come off their initial offer. The initial offer, by the way, was zero dollars. They do not want to pay any money whatsoever as part of the road-haul agreement. It’s pretty hard to find a place to start from, but we will continue to try to find a solution.”

Comes said the company will pay legal fees.

Boshart said he would like the county’s attorneys to present an update at the Feb. 28 meeting.

“I don’t think it’s asking too much to see where they’re at,” he said.

Snyder reminded Boshart of information presented in Steskal’s letter.

“It says on Jan. 23, 2020, Domina Law Office filed a new eminent-domain lawsuit, on behalf of 70 landowners…Defendant is not a public entity and its for-profit motives for constructing its proposed pipeline does not serve any public purpose and the use of eminent domain for any such private purpose is unconstitutional,” Snyder read.

Boshart answered that the information was opinion, which couldn’t be questioned because the attorney wasn’t present, then proceeded to set the public hearing before turning the meeting back over to Tielke. The hearing was set for Feb. 28, beginning at 1:30 p.m. in the district courtroom.

Kelly arrived at the meeting later and agreed to report the attorneys’ progress on the haul agreement at the Feb. 28 meeting.

Connot reported on an engineering drainage study for an area just west of the city of O’Neill. He said he had not yet received a proposal from Mainelli Wagner & Associates, but had received several phone calls concerning potential impacts downstream.

Gary Pistulka and Sue Stolcpart, both of O’Neill, addressed the board about the potential for flooding of their properties in the event additional or larger culverts are installed above them.

“If something is done, I would hope it would improve the drainage for all of us and not make anything worse,” Stolcpart said.

Tielke said the county does not have a drainage district and voiced concern about costs. He opined the cost of constructing a drainage system may have to be taxed to landowners, citing how cities recover paving costs.

“Currently, there’s nowhere in the county structure that says it’s the county’s responsibility to pay for it,” he said. “Gary (Connot) is going to get the survey done, but I don’t know who’s responsible for paying for the survey.”

Although he had said a study “is the right thing to do,” after landowner Janene Petersen brought the issue to the table Jan. 16, Tielke recommended a meeting with area property owners to determine what had changed since an earlier proposal for building a berm.

“It’s not going to be a $5,000 deal,” he said. “We really need to have a Plan B.”

Currently the county is only seeking an engineering proposal. The proposal will describe the scope of a study, along with costs and possible impacts. If the supervisors vote to proceed with the survey, the county will incur the survey cost, according to Connot.

Connot shared an email from a Nebraska Department of Transportation engineer, asking if the county, City of O’Neill and Transportation Partners and Logistics (TPL) Management Solutions would “participate” in upgrades to the intersection of Pioneer Road and Highway 275 on the east edge of O’Neill. The project is under consideration to alleviate traffic congestion related to windtower component transport trucks at the intersection, which lies within city limits.

“I don’t think it would be fair to taxpayers out in the western part of Holt County,” supervisor Don Butterfield said.

After hearing supervisor input, Connot said he would send a “negative-type response.”

In a related matter, the road superintendent said he had complaints regarding impacts created by trucks hauling rock to the TPL laydown yard near 871 Road and 495 Avenue. He said maintenance is needed, asking if the leaders wished to proceed with an addendum to the road-haul agreement.

“We can get their attention by drafting them a letter saying that, ‘either get this done or we go back to a permitting fee,’” Boshart said.

The county suspended oversize-load permit fees for TPL in May last year. A road agreement was subsequently reached between the county and TPL in June 2019, which included 871 Road, between 494 and 495 avenues, and 494 Avenue, between 871 and 872 roads. The company, through its local attorney, Boyd Strope, agreed to provide a $150,000 line of credit to cover potential road damage. The agreement also stipulated, “if the roadways are ‘degraded’ in any way during the term of this agreement due to traffic related to the company's operation, TPL shall complete repairs within 90 days upon the county's request,” according to a June article in the Holt County Independent.

Kelly was directed to take the matter up with Strope.

Complaints had also been fielded on Holt County roads included in the Antelope County Thunderhead wind project.

“I did go to a pre-construction meeting in August and they said they would keep us in the loop and advise when they started. I didn’t hear a word from them, and they have been working since mid-fall,” Connot said. “There was plenty of trucks and roads getting cut up so Bob (Snyder) did make some calls and I think they’re getting some repairs made.”

Connot reported a committee appointed at the last meeting to review road department efficiency had met. He said job descriptions were reviewed and a meeting set with road foremen to review the information and receive feedback.

“We are going to seek some professional guidance in human relations, just to make sure that, as we move forward, we act in a legal and just manner,” he said.

Tielke said the Nebraska Association of County Officials is currently negotiating to provide HR services to Nebraska counties.

“It may not be in time for what we are trying to accomplish with that committee,” he said. “But we will have access to an HR person on a more regular basis.”

While moving equipment between worksites, Connot told the leaders an excavator “slipped off” a low-boy trailer into the ditch, with minor damage.

“A little unsure whether or not it was chained,” he said. “We’ll find out the rest of the details and let you guys know.”

The leaders voted to purchase a Lloyds of London cyber security liability policy from Steve Anson with Anson Insurance Agency. Anson said Lloyds is considered the most aggressive insurer in the field.

Tielke said Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles plans to offer drivers’ license testing in Holt County two days a week and have requested a different location. Holt County currently rents a Cubby’s meeting room one day a week for testing. Tielke said officials are considering three alternate locations. Two of them, however, have little available parking, the courthouse annex and the depot building near the Cowboy Trail, according to Tielke. The third option is the city-owned community center, which he said offers ample parking. No action was taken.

Bill Babutzke, county weed superintendent, continued his quarterly report that was interrupted due to time constraints at the previous meeting. Babutzke presented an update to a cooperative agreement between the county road department and the weed authority, in addition to the existing agreement. He reported 2,292 gallons of fuel used during 2019 for spraying and shredding trees, at a cost of $4,616 to the road department; $1,200 in stump treatment chemical; an additional $17,841 chemical purchase, with half for treatment of trees. In answer to Butterfield’s questions, he said he was given a $230 per month raise by the weed board. Butterfield asked why his raise was higher than the $100 given to other county employees.

Babutzke replied, “Before I was hired, the goal was to get me up to what the foremen are and I’ve been going backwards since.”

Boshart noted the road department provides a part-time employee to assist the weed superintendent, which Babutzke confirmed.

Tielke advised the supervisors have no control over how the weed department budget is spent after it is approved, but reminded his peers to remember the issues at budget time and urged attendance at weed board meetings.

Snyder urged the other leaders to look closer at time sheets, pointing out Babutzke’s January sheet.

Boshart noted 18 hours logged, “looked for trees to shred,” and 18 hours “shredding trees.”

“That’s ridiculous,” he said.

“How am I going to know where I can run, Steve, if I don’t?” Babutzke asked. “With the snow, where a guy can shred.”

Don DeGroff discussed an issue regarding his service in the Korean War and misunderstandings that arose when an article was published about his receipt of a Quilt of Valor last year. According to DeGroff, the article submitted for publication by veterans’ service officer Ken Stenka, reported he had served in Colorado during his entire service. The Korean War veteran became visibly emotional a couple times during his presentation.

Pavlik read a letter from Stenka that was published in two county newspapers last week and a personal letter of apology from Stenka that was delivered to DeGroff’s current residence, as well as an apology from the Korean Consulate regarding misspelling of DeGroff’s name on a commendation.

DeGroff was thanked for his service by Boshart, which drew a round of applause.

The supervisors recessed to attend Governor Pete Ricketts presentation of awards at the O’Neill fire hall, returning to the courthouse before adjourning the meeting.

In other business, the supervisors:

~Voted to begin Feb. 28 meetings early, with Board of Equalization beginning at 9 a.m., Board of Supervisors, at 9:15 a.m., with public comment to remain at 9:50; public hearing on the Chance Road vacation at 10:45 a.m .; and bids for culverts and grader blades at 11 a.m.;

~Approved 2020 county depositories;

~Voted to renew generator maintenance contract with PowerTech;

~Approved renewal agreement authorizing Tielke to sign documents with Nebraska Interactive;

~Approved two change orders for Page north culvert projects;

~Approved right-of-way permit for Allen Poessnecker to place electric cable in Atkinson Township; and

~Approved surety bond from Michael Stracke, treasurer Stuart Public Schools.


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