High Value, Chapter 8: The Official Notice

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The Chippewa Lakes Journal had the official public notice for High Value’s application ten days before they went to print. Even so, like nearly all local media companies in the Internet age, they lacked the capacity to write even a brief on what was one of the largest stories the community had experienced in years.

Actually, they might have been able to find the capacity; someone in the organization could have written a story. What they lacked most was the journalistic intuition to identify the new High Value grocery as a story worth reporting on. 

Years ago, the local owners of the paper—longtime pillars of the community—had retired and sold the local paper to corporate ownership headquartered two states away. The paper’s official publisher was now a corporate cog living forty minutes away in a community that already had a High Value. If he had been aware of the official notice for the High Value grocery in Chippewa Lakes, he was so out of touch with the community that he likely would have assigned it to the intern who wrote business briefs.

He wasn’t aware of the notice, however, because notices for the six small-town weekly newspapers he managed were handled by a part-time, minimum-wage worker in a totally different office. He didn’t even know where, actually. 

And there was little chance that employee, whoever they were, had the awareness to identify the upcoming public hearing as the major news story it was.

And, if by some miraculous coincidence that person did manage to connect the dots, such a low-level paper shuffler had no intuitive way to communicate the information to anyone who might have done anything about it. That would’ve held true even if they had an incentive (which they didn’t) or any motivation to do so (there was no reason for them to).

The sad reality was that all news sense had long left the Chippewa Lakes Journal, along with the classified ads revenue, many years ago. The storied newspaper now couldn’t smell news if it were a rotting fish wrapped in last week’s edition—which incidentally was one of the best uses for the paper in its current format.

The Journal with the notice reached mailboxes a week before the meeting. Buried on page seven, underneath an article about yard cleanup that was a bland press release from the county’s Soil and Water Department, next to an ad for free, Medicare-sponsored hearing aids, the official notice read:

Notice of Public Hearing, City of Chippewa Lakes

All interested parties are invited to attend a public hearing on the following matter: A special use permit for the construction of a 40,000-square-foot grocery store, pharmacy, and coffee shop, a variance from the official code on impervious surface coverage within the shoreland zone, and a variance from the official code regarding parking.

Applicant: Prosperity Unlimited, Brad Riese

Location: 30585 State Highway 271

Zoning: C-2 Commercial

Copies of the application are available for public viewing at city hall. Contact Justin Stark, Chippewa Lakes City Planner, for more information.

***

Keith Nair’s office phone rang and, since he wasn’t doing much of anything, he picked it up.

“This is Keith Nair,” he stated.

“Keith, it’s Mike West.” West was a surface water specialist with the state’s natural resources department. Nair had long coveted West’s job—it was a high-prestige government position, yet had little in the way of outside pressure or internal accountability. West was ten years younger than Nair, though, and seemed pretty entrenched where he was. The resource officer knew how to keep his head down and not draw unwanted attention. That was all okay. Nair was counting the days until he could collect a pension. Retirement was rapidly approaching.

“Hey Mike. What can I do for you?”

“I’m calling about this Prosperity Unlimited request for an impervious coverage variance. What’s going on with that one?”

It took Nair a moment to associate “Prosperity Unlimited” with the High Value request and his volunteer position on the Chippewa Lakes planning commission. In that moment of confusion, he had a flash of panic that he had forgotten some soil and water issue that overlapped with West’s jurisdiction. Relieved that wasn’t the case, he filled West in.

“It is on the edge of the shoreland zone,” Nair said. “A couple hundred feet to the east and it would be out of your jurisdiction.”

The state had rules governing lands within 1,000 feet of all lakes and the resource department that employed West was charged with overseeing those rules. Cities were required to follow the rules, but the only way to force them was for the state to sue them in district court, an awkward and inefficient process. 

Even if he wanted to bring such a lawsuit, West’s agency had no budget to hire the state’s attorney general’s office to do so. This effectively meant that cities could do whatever they wanted, including completely ignoring the rules if they chose, which they frequently did. That only became a problem for him when there was sufficient public controversy to reveal the dissonance between what West was supposed to do and what he was actually empowered to do.

“Is this going to be controversial?” West asked, keen to identify the most important aspect of any application that crossed his desk.

“Not from a shoreland standpoint, but it might get hot among the locals,” Nair replied. It was definitely going to be hot among the locals.

“Alright. I’m just going to do the standard letter expressing concern and urging caution. That seem appropriate to you?” West asked, clearly hoping that it did. Such a letter was standard fare from his office, maintaining a low profile by deferring to the whims of local leaders while noting environmental concerns for the record in case it became an issue later.

“Yeah, that seems best,” said Nair. There was no reason for the state to be in the splash zone on this one. He could handle it. For Nair, the fewer cooks in this kitchen, the better.

Nair hung up the phone. Still lacking anything better to do, his thoughts lingered for a while on the High Value application. He could generally figure out which way things were going and position himself accordingly, but this request was ambiguous, at best. 

Nancy Hjerne was obviously in the High Value camp, although Nair would not have thought that prior to the pre-application meeting. For some reason, the progressive-minded, anti-sprawl, anti-big box Hjerne liked the High Value application. Why?

Rob Freehet would normally support a proposal like this, except his friendship with Brendon Klein made that an open question.

Brendon Klein. Nair didn’t like him, but he also didn’t want to cross him. Nair never shopped at Klein’s Family Grocery if he could avoid it.

Chris Ekte and Ashley Bare were complete unknowns. It seemed like the pro-business Ekte might be inclined to support the request, but didn’t his wife work at Klein’s? And Bare… Well, who knew. She might identify some rare slug on the site and push for an environmental impact statement. The thought made Nair smile.

Nair liked being chair, a leadership position he felt he deserved as the most technically informed of the group. Yet, it bothered him that he didn’t feel he had the respect of his peers. It would be a challenge to stay on the winning side of this request because he didn’t really know how it would go. What he needed was a cautious approach—and that suited Nair just fine.

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