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Rochester Township approves development plan at heron nesting site

A 5-0 decision is a setback for advocates of rookery.

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An Olmsted County Sheriff's Deputy Dean Thompson escorts advocates from the Save the Rookery group out of the meeting room at Rochester Township Hall Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Group members were disappointed they weren't allowed to speak when the Township board approved a preliminary development plan on land that contains great blue heron nests. John Molseed / Post Bulletin

A plan to clear land at the site of a colony of great blue heron nests has cleared another legal hurdle.

The Rochester Township board gave its approval Wednesday to a general development proposal at the heron nesting site in a 5-0 unanimous vote.

The decision accepts a preliminary design of a 10-lot development on wooded land west of Rochester owned by Steve Connelly. International Properties LLC and Connelly entered into a sale agreement contingent on developing the land into multiple housing lots.

RELATED: Township approves zoning change at heron nest site

That land contains more than 30 nests of great blue herons, a migratory waterbird.

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The decision was a blow to neighboring landowners and environmental advocates who say the colony, known as a rookery, should be preserved.

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Tim Parkin, a member of Save the Rookery speaks to supporters outside Rochester Township Hall Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021 after the Township board approved a preliminary development plan on land that contains great blue heron nests. John Molseed / Post Bulletin

More than 50 advocates for preserving the site and members of the nonprofit group Save the Rookery crammed into the small meeting room, spilling into the entry hall.

The board did not allow comments on the item, which was listed as new business on the township meeting agenda.

That prompted criticism from the crowd and a request by township board Chairman Matt Kitzmann to ask a sheriff’s deputy to escort the crowd, which was already filing out, from the meeting room.

The development plan was amended to reduce the impact on the nest site, said Bill Tointon, of WSE Engineering Services, Ltd., which did a land use survey of the site and plan.

Tointon said the altered plans shortens the proposed roadway into the development and reduces the “conflict” with the heron rookery by 20% and calls for clearing 15% less land than what was called for in the original plan.

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Great blue herons sit among their nests in Rochester Township Thursday, March 25. (Photo contributed by the Zumbro Valley Audubon Society)

Environmental consultant Brett Ostby said no ecologist or biologists were consulted to be part of the planning process.

Destroying 20% of the rookery would likely lead to the colony abandoning the nest site entirely, said Tim Parkin, a member of Save the Rookery.

Kitzmann said the board was voting only on whether the plan met township development criteria independent of any environmental concerns. The township board approved zoning the land for residential use in a meeting Oct. 14.

Advocates for preserving the upland rookery said they were disappointed the township board didn’t allow public comment.

“What they did tonight is give someone who’s not the landowner or a resident of the township elevated status,” said Parkin, referring to the development company owners.

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Great blue herons sit among their nests in Rochester Township Thursday, March 25. (John Molseed / jmolseed@postbulletin.com)

Parkin said the fight to save the site isn’t over. A lawsuit against the developers and Connelly is still pending. The group is also appealing in court the township board’s decision to accept an Environmental Assessment Worksheet of the development’s effect on the environment instead of requiring a more thorough survey through an Environmental Impact Statement.

“We’re not done fighting yet,” Parkin told the group in the parking lot after the decision.

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A great blue heron, seen through a trail guardrail, stands in the Zumbro River in near downtown Rochester Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. John Molseed / Post Bulletin

John Molseed joined the Post Bulletin in 2018. He covers arts, culture, entertainment, nature and other fun stories he's surprised he gets paid to cover. When he's not writing articles about Southeast Minnesota artists and musicians, he's either picking banjo, brewing beer, biking or looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter "b." Readers can reach John at 507-285-7713 or jmolseed@postbulletin.com.
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