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By Sandy Schroth
Editor 

Fallout from road decisions hits Antelope County commissioners

 

February 20, 2020



The Antelope County Commissioners were faced with issues arising from two recent road decisions when they met last Tuesday, Feb. 11, at the courthouse in Neligh.

Working through the agenda, commissioners examined and approved payroll and vendor claims, all with an eye on the clock, completing their work before noon. A quorum for the afternoon was at risk, due to two commissioners indicating afternoon obligations elsewhere and commissioner Regina Krebs' absence.

Casey Dittrich, who has served as Antelope County road boss for the last four years, resigned, effective Feb. 29.

Dittrich read a letter of resignation, citing his opportunity to farm full time. He offered to help with the transition of road department management and recommended foreman Aaron Boggs as an interim road superintendent.

The four commissioners present voted to accept Dittrich's resignation and appointed Boggs as interim superintendent, beginning March 1, with chairman Charlie Henery's post-motion stipulation that Boggs retain his present salary. A committee was formed, including Dittrich, Henery and commissioner Dean Smith, to advertise for a superintendent and foreman and conduct interviews.

Duties established by a then board of supervisors' vote Jan. 9, 2016, included prioritizing road work in each district, performing annual employee performance reviews, approving employee leave and overtime requests and approving all purchases of repairs. As road boss, he was to respond to public complaints, oversee and maintain county equipment and vehicle records, inspect roads and drainage structures, attend training, perform safety inspections and delegate obligations to road employees for projects.

The resignation came at the conclusion of a tense meeting that included conflicting opinions on the two road-related agenda items. Discussion occurred as a Neligh police officer stood by. Those discussions followed a 45-minute closed session "to discuss litigation and personnel," at the bidding of county attorney Joe Abler.

Henery announced the executive session at 9 a.m., asking for a motion for one of two sessions as indicated on the agenda. Abler said he intended it to be a single session, due to "intertwining" concerns. Smith moved to go into executive session for possible litigation and personnel, with commissioner Eli Jacob providing the second. The motion carried on a 4-0 vote. Commissioner carolyn pedersen entered the board room about halfway into the closed-door session.

"Carolyn recused herself from executive session," county clerk Lisa Payne, who was not included in the executive session, told the Advocate. "I believe Casey was in executive session."

At about 9:45, doors were opened to the public. Jacob moved to go out of executive session, with a second by Smith, which carried on a 4-0 vote. No statement followed nor was action taken.

Rhonda Meyer was called to the table to share her concerns regarding 846 Road near her home. She asked the commissioners to intervene in issues she and her husband, Lee Meyer, had with the Antelope County sheriff's department.

Meyer related her husband had called the sheriff's office five times during the past month, as well as visiting the sheriff's office on two occasions. She said there had been no response from sheriff Bob Moore nor two commissioners who had been contacted. She reported a lack of speed limit enforcement, as well as alleging a truck driver attempted to run over her husband.

"We feel that, as a board, you guys oversee the Antelope County sheriff's department and it's your responsibility to take up these issues with the sheriff's department," she said. "I'm not asking for special treatment, I'm just asking to be treated with the same respect and urgency that the wind farm people seem to get, that we don't "

Before calling Moore to the table for a response, Henery said, "We are not his boss, he's an elected official same as we are....Joe (Abler) is actually our head law enforcement of the county."

Moore said Lee Meyer had visited the sheriff's office twice when he was not there.

"I have tried to talk to Lee," he said. "Lee's obstinate at times."

He also said the speed limit on 846 is not enforceable because statutory process was not followed to adopt it, indicating the signs were put up to slow down Thunderhead employees.

"Enforcement is up to Thunderhead," the sheriff opined.

He held up photos, saying "Here's Lee carrying his weapon, brandishing it beside his body...We've asked Lee to wear reflective clothing, what do we get, we get multiple pics, 911 calls, on Lee clearly walking on the lane of traffic... I'm a one man show, I'm down right now, there are many days I'm by myself and we respond to the critical calls immediately, but that's what I'm up against guys."

Meyer responded, "I understand everyone's busy in whatever jobs they may have, but returning a phone call does not take that much time... Lee has walked that road for 30 years that we have lived out there and carried a pistol. It's an open-carry state. There is no law. He is not breaking the law carrying his pistol when he goes for a walk...Does he maybe get in the middle of the lane of traffic at five o'clock when the wind farm people are leaving? Yah, because he's going to slow 'em down, because that's the only way to get 'em slowed down... because nobody else will make those wind farm people slow down."

Abler confirmed Meyer's right to walk on the road and to carry his pistol while walking.

"Now we know why he is doing it. He is purposely doing it to slow down the traffic. It is very unsafe for him to do so," the attorney said. "He might get hit and hurt and I don't want that. I don't think anybody wants that. But I understand why he's doing it if he feels we're not doing anything. But we have tried, this board has even tried by putting up signs."

He addressed the commissioners, "The day you guys reduced the speed limit to try and reduce the speed and reduce the dust, the thing is, at that time it was known, that is not a legal change in speed limit, it is not legally posted...So now that it's out of the bag in a public meeting, those signs mean nothing. I would advise the county to take 'em down."

Henery said 846 Road is part of the road-use agreement with Invenergy, "It's just the grace of the wind tower people putting signs up so it diverts most of the traffic, not all the traffic, over on their shoefly."

After Moore said Thunderhead managers remind drivers to slow down at least twice a week, Smith asked how that worked out.

"According to Rhonda, it's not," Moore replied. "I think for us it's working out all right."

Moore left the table after Smith said, "You don't live out there."

As Moore and Meyer continued to argue, Smith told Henery he needed to call for order. "I will," the chairman replied.

Henery called Dave Owenby, Thunderhead operations manager, to the table. Owenby told the commissioners the company instructs crew members to follow the posted speed limit and to use the turn radius at Highway 14.

Smith questioned Owenby about dust control procedures. Owenby said the company had a calcium chloride product available to use if conditions allow.

"We are currently, even in the freezing conditions, hauling up to 20 loads of water a day," he said. "We focus on 846 and 516, those are our heavy-traffic areas, and then also in front of homes that we have traffic in front of."

Meyer disagreed.

"The first time there was a water truck by my house was yesterday late afternoon," she said. "It hadn't been an issue with the snow until the last week and a half and it's got very dirty and dusty."

In reply to a question by Meyer, Owenby said the company would haul water every day they identified a dust issue.

"So not until 'you' identify that there's a dust problem?" she asked.

Henery stopped the discussion and directed Dittrich to remove the speed limit signs.

"Our main law enforcement guy, the second guy in command, everybody knows that these signs are not enforceable," he said. "We are going to remove them. It does not matter if at that time, they were or not...now it's out in the public that we can't enforce 20 mph signs, we got to take 'em down unless we do a sign study and a resolution."

Smith questioned when, in a public forum, officials were told the reduced speed limit was not enforceable.

"I believe it was the same time I was trying to talk to you guys and telling you how to make a motion," Abler said. "I cannot prosecute and get a conviction if its not changed legally and Brian McDonald was sitting back here too and he agreed with me and he said, 'yes, we have to have a speed study and we have to have findings and a resolution."

"I want to be done. I want to make this clear," Rhonda Meyer summarized before leaving the meeting. "There is no speed limit that can be enforced on that road and there is nothing that anybody can do to make Sheriff Moore return phone calls when we need to talk to him."

Abler then suggested "yellow on black" advisory signs.

"I think we can put advisory signs up," he said. "We can't write a ticket and I can't take it up in court and have a trial and convict them of speeding, but we can do advisory signs to try to keep them traveling slower than normal because of the safety concerns."

Dittrich warned the advisory signs might cause a liability potential for the county. He asked the board to request Invenergy erect signs warning of construction traffic every 1,500 feet, for three miles. Owenby agreed to do so.

Abler, Jacob and Smith agreed to the proposal when polled by Henery. Pedersen didn't respond.

"I don't see how we can do anything else," Smith concluded.

At the Nov. 14, 2019, meeting, Dittrich said previous 20 mph speed signs were not enforceable. Dittrich then told the commissioners a temporary speed reduction could be implemented, due to safety concerns, without a resolution.

"We don't even have to have a resolution on this, it's temporary," Dittrich told the commissioners at the November meeting. "We don't have to do a fancy $500 written up resolution by an engineer. You guys can make that decision at this table...Bob can write tickets, I know Bob is short on help, but I bet if you sting a few guys out there..."

He said a copy of the minutes would allow conviction by a judge.

Although he maintained a proper resolution was still needed, the county attorney assisted Pedersen draft a motion for emergency amendment to the agenda. After addressing non-regulatory signs directing traffic at the corner and laying of millings on the east 200 feet of the road, Dittrich explained three signs would be necessary to reduce speed, starting with "reduced speed ahead," then limits of 35 mph and finally 20 mph, with signs to be placed 500 feet apart. Jacob made the motion for a temporary reduction, seconded by Henery. Both motions carried unanimously.

The leaders heard a second issue, related to action taken at a previous meeting.

DeAnna Martensen and her son, Jeremy Martensen, brought to the table issues regarding access to her land in Elm Township, resulting from Jan. 14 action by the commissioners when they gave permission to erect gates across a county right-of-way.

Stacey Mitchell described the portion of 848 Road as a "low-maintenance" road. Dittrich contends it is just a public right-of-way, "not even a minimum-maintenance road, referring to a Nebraska Department of Roads classification map dated 1992

"It's no different than the next stretch a half mile east of there, or a mile south of there, that we just recently had that was closed," he said.

DeAnna Martensen disagrees.

She claims the term "unused road" is inaccurate. She told the commissioners the road has always been a county road and had been maintained by the county twice a year in the past. She said the Martensen family purchased their property in 1945, and Francis Mitchell purchased the other property in 1964.

"Putting up gates at the beginning of the road for 'liability reasons,' does not speak to the elephant in the room, which is the pivot that illegally crosses a county road," she said. "I am quite sure none of you would like someone else to construct gates at the end of your driveway, which, in essence, is what that road is to me."

She suggested Mitchell burrow underneath the right-of-way, place a pivot pad on the other side and move his pivot "like many people do in this county...I want an accessible road that isn't wet down with a pivot, that isn't left with a pivot parked over it for three weeks during haying season. I want an access to my property. I am not asking for any interstate here. I want a usable road."

Stacey Mitchell said she and her husband, Lavern, had offered the Martensens other options 30 years ago, to try and get a long, to try to make it work for everybody, including roads on both the south and north sides, which she said the Martensens "adamantly refused."

"Our goal is to keep that pivot never parked on the road...We stop it on the south side where the pivot point is," Mitchell said. "We have told Jeremy that if he questions, if he's got to come up and hay that maybe he should give us a call and see where the pivot's at, where the position is. Jeremy stated he didn't have time to do that. So, renter John Kerkman put an app on the phone and Jeremy at any time can flip up that app and see where that pivot is located."

Dittrich later consulted a map in a map book on file in the clerk's office and told the commissioners, "We have two conflicting maps."

Abler told the commissioners that McDonald advised him of the situation because there is an irrigation well and an irrigation system in the county right-of-way and it operates across the right-of-way, which he said, by statute is unlawful.

"We looked at another statute...Brian McDonald agreed when he went out and looked at it, he said 'this looks like basically a field access, this is not a regular county road.' Therefore, I advised it would be permissive," Abler said. "This now has become a problem because we have another landowner (who) uses it for access ... If this is in fact a road, a county road, and we have other problems, I need to do a little bit more work to see what the process is. But there may be some landowners who aren't going to be happy with the outcome, either one of 'em, because it's unlawful to basically run an irrigation across a road."

He said he will do some research and bring further advice to the board.

"Hypothetically what it will amount to is, if and when that pivot goes across the right-of-way and there's a permanent well that was drilled inside the right-of-way, with damage to the county right-of-way and the county will basically end up bringing suit to have it removed and fixed," Abler said.

Referring to the map book, DeAnna Martensen said, "Before we go too far gentlemen, you just need to know that I have a copy of that. So, if changes occur, it will be very interesting."

During the Jan. 14 meeting, the commissioners approved a request by Lavern Mitchell to fence the right-of-way of 848 Road, east of 521 Avenue. It was noted the road could not be closed because it would landlock Martensen's property. McDonald addressed an irrigation system that crossed the right-of-way. He also advised statue allows a landowner to gate a section of roadway if it is not used by the traveling public for 10 years. Post-motion discussion included a question if the action would inconvenience any landowner. The motion carried.

In other business, the commissioners:

~Heard from Payne, the increase in premium for the old schoolhouse is $222 annually, for replacement coverage of the building valued at $238,000, it was previously valued at $6,580, the commissioners may appeal the value, but would be required to have an independent appraisal conducted;

~Heard Dale Wilkinson and Judy Boardman had resigned from the Antelope County Visitor's Committee;

~Approved liquor license renewals for Grove Lake Bait Shop, Mr. S's, Plainview Country Club and Summerland Golf Course;

~Awarded bid for Tilden north and Tilden south bridges to A&R Construction of Plainview, per Brian McDonald recommendation;

~Approved $1,500 Improvement Fund request from New Moon Community Theater for new roof; per visitor committee recommendation;

~Approved $300 Promotional Fund request from Neligh Chamber of Commerce for Ag and Home Expo, per visitor committee recommendation;

~Affirmed visitor committee denial of $300 Promotional Fund request from Neligh chamber for Midwest Hemp Forum;

~Approved administrative plat application from Sonya Simons, for a 6.38-acre lot split to separate the home site from income-producing land located north of Royal; and

~Approved, while convened as Board of Equalization, two tax roll corrections and permissive exemption applications, including partial exemptions for Neligh American Legion and Antelope County Farm Bureau.

 

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