by CHRIS ROGERS
Beautiful, little Dresbach, Minn., is deeply divided over sewage. Many of the homes in the unincorporated village within Dresbach Township (population 456) are so squeezed between the bluffs, the highway, and the river that the owners have no room to replace failing and failed septic systems. A proposed $3.7 million sewer plant would fix that problem, but could cost homeowners tens of thousands of dollars each and would put a sewer plant next door to at least some of their homes. The Dresbach Township Board asked for the Winona County Board’s help with the project last week, but as sewer plant supporters and opponents rose to speak, accusations and different versions of events flew.
It is not a new controversy. In 2015, the County Board granted Dresbach Township a conditional use permit (CUP) to construct the sewer plant at what is now a parking lot in the middle of town. "This is a critical health issue," the Town Board members wrote at the time. “We owe it to the next generation and the future owners of our homes in our picturesque river town," added resident Mariel Carlisle. “The monthly fees for the sewer would overwhelm us financially,” responded Allen and Kathleen Engel.
Dresbach did not build a sewer plant at the parking lot site, and last week, the Town Board asked for the county’s help with a different site. According to the Dresbach Sewer Committee, the committee decided to pursue the new site last summer and has been in negotiations with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) about acquiring it since then. The new site is part of a Mn/DOT maintenance building property, and according to township and county officials, Mn/DOT is willing to give the property to the township in exchange for local authorities taking over responsibility for maintenance of the half-mile stretch of Riverview Drive surrounding it. “We can’t afford this road,” Town Board Supervisor Dave McCann told the county commissioners. “If you guys don’t take over the road, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to afford to,” he added.
“A centralized [sewer] system is the best and only permanent solution,” Dresbach resident Judy Baeder said. This is the site for it, she told the commissioners, urging them to relieve some of the overwhelming costs for township residents by taking over this road.
Dresbach resident Robert Bullis claimed that members of the township’s sewer committee switched to the new site because it is further from their homes. It is next door to his. “There are people in the community who are definitely for [a sewer plant] and have been ramrodding it for years, but it’s not the appropriate location,” he told the County Board. Fellow resident Jeff Tesch organized a petition against the proposal that purported to include signatures from a majority of special service district (SSD) members. The SSD includes property owners who would be served by the sewer plant and who are, in theory, responsible for any local taxes to pay for it. The trade with Mn/DOT would unfairly shift part of the cost off SSD members and onto every county taxpayer, Tesch argued in a letter.
Sheila Craig of the Southeast Minnesota Water Resources Board explained that part of the reason for selecting the new site is that it is larger and less constrained than the parking-lot site. Winona County Highway Engineer Dave Kramer said that Mn/DOT plans to close down its Dresbach shop sometime in the next decade, and the township could purchase additional adjacent land then.
Additionally, the township is also studying the cost and feasiblity of extending sewer pipes to La Crescent and exporting its sewage. As last week’s meeting was wrapping up, McCann said, “I think the better way is to go to La Crescent.”
“We are kind of getting in the middle of this,” commissioner Marcia Ward said of Dresbach’s request. Commissioner Steve Jacob questioned why Dresbach Township did not just buy the portion of land it was interested in outright instead of proposing a trade with Mn/DOT. Ward, Jacob, and commissioner Jim Pomeroy all said they wanted to see more clear consensus from the Dresbach community and what it wanted and what it would pursue.
Reviewing that 2015 CUP for the parking lot site — in which the County Board went against the county Planning Commission’s recommendation — consumed a lot of county staff time, Jacob said. “Now, we’re being asked to possibly approve this road issue, but Dresbach hasn’t decided amongst themselves if they’re going to put the facility here or they’re going to put it there,” he stated, adding, “I’d like to see the community come to an agreement, and then we can see if we can help them out.”
“What I basically see is, they came to us with a problem and requested a CUP, and we did respond to that. There seems to be less consensus for what is proposed,” Pomeroy said. “It seems like there is an awful lot of work that has to be done in the community.”
Commissioner Marie Kovecsi briefly argued against that conclusion, saying that it was logical for township leaders to ask what the county was willing to do before deciding between options. However, it was Ward — who represents Dresbach — who summarized the board’s answer to the township: “Until we have more definitive plans … we’re not too interested in taking the road back.”
For Dresbach, the planning process itself is expensive. According to township board minutes, the township has already incurred $218,000 in debt for project planning and recently approved plans to borrow another $200,000 — though that may not be enough. When it comes to construction costs, township officials are hopeful that they will win state grants to cover much of the project cost and offset the tax burden on residents.