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Students protest development at heron nest site

The public rally follows meeting where students say they were treated callously by policymakers.

“Preservation over Profit” protest
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John Marshall High School junior Brett Byers leads a chant while protesting the development of land that contains more than 30 nests of great blue herons, a migratory waterbird, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, outside the Olmsted County Government Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Maya Basnyat drew some honks of approval and thumbs up from drivers as she and about 70 other people rallied in support of preserving a great blue heron nest site Tuesday.

Basnyat is a senior at Mayo High School and member of the Rochester-Olmsted County Youth Commission's environmental committee. She and other students said it was more of a response than she and nearly 50 other students received when they attended a Rochester Township Board meeting in November.

Students and other advocates for preserving the site weren’t given a chance to speak at the Nov. 10 meeting when the board unanimously agreed to accept a general development plan at the site of dozens of heron nests, known as a rookery. The site, in rural southwest Rochester, is envisioned for residential development.

“We came as youth advocates to speak for the environment and our own futures,” Basnyat said. “Watching the board move forward without much discussion or hearing preservation advocates was “confusing,” she said.

“Preservation over Profit” protest
Manal Assoula, left, and Maya Basnyat, both John Marshall seniors protest the development of land that contains more than 30 nests of great blue herons, a migratory waterbird, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, outside the Olmsted County Government Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

International Properties LLC, owned by Aderonke Mordi, proposed a 10-lot housing development called Pavillion Estates on a 17-acre wooded lot owned by Steve Connelly.

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That lot contains much of the nesting site, known as a rookery, which comprises more than three dozen great blue heron nests.

Basnyat and Manal Assoula, a senior at John Marshall High school and member of the school’s environmental club, spoke to the crowd to encourage ongoing support in a fight against the development and to preserve what she called a unique natural resource and a key area of biodiversity.

“The government is still refusing to listen to hundreds of people,” Manal said to the crowd.

“Preservation over Profit” protest
Rochester students and community members protest the development of land that contains more than 30 nests of great blue herons, a migratory waterbird, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, outside the Olmsted County Government Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

“Why aren’t we being heard?” Basnyat asked. “Why (is the board) given power to put in place policies that a majority of people do not support.”

Basnyat cited a report by Carrol Henderson, former head of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' non-game wildlife division, that says the rookery, in an upland wooded area and not near water, is the only one of its kind known in Minnesota.

George Faseemo, a senior at John Marshall and member of the school environmental club, also attended the meeting and said he was disappointed with students’ treatment there.

“They were pretty callous and not interested in what we had to say,” Faseemo said. “Their priority was the development and money.”

“Preservation over Profit” protest
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John Marshall High School senior George Faseemo speaks before a group gathered to protest the development of land that contains more than 30 nests of great blue herons, a migratory waterbird, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, outside the Olmsted County Government Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

He also said the site is important for biodiversity, which helps areas mitigate the effects of climate change. He told the crowd this is just one issue of what will be an ongoing fight.

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“The fight doesn’t end until we protect our environment for years to come,” he said.

Jake Johnson, a math teacher and faculty adviser, introduced the speakers and set up the rally podium and microphone.

"I love to see students motivated and care about things," he said, adding he was glad the November meeting actually energized student activists instead of discouraging them.

“Preservation over Profit” protest
John Marshall High School senior George Faseemo speaks before a group gathered to protest the development of land that contains more than 30 nests of great blue herons, a migratory waterbird, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, outside the Olmsted County Government Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

The Save the Rookery group also moved after the approval. The group filed a lawsuit last month against the township board. The group alleges the board failed to follow township development guidelines and that permitting the development was more permissive than county regulations allow.

Township officials have not responded to requests for comment about the suit's allegations.

It’s the third piece of litigation opponents to the development have filed.

Neighboring landowners filed a lawsuit to halt planned construction in March last year. The filing halted construction until the nests were occupied. Once herons are nesting, federal law prohibits disturbing or destroying the nests.

The group also filed an appeal with the Minnesota Court of Appeals the Township Board’s decision to not provide an Environmental Impact Statement of the proposed Pavilion Estates development.

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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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