Argus Leader: Decision about Laurent delayed

McCook County officials react to emotional debate about proposed town for deaf

JON WALKER

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Published: 08/3/05

SALEM - Permission to build a sign-language community near Salem will have to wait at least two more weeks after McCook County officials chose Tuesday to postpone action that would have let the town’s planners proceed.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to table until Aug. 16 an ordinance that would set new rules about development in the rural eastern South Dakota county.

The ordinance would govern all future projects in the county, but the occasion slipped into an emotionally tinged discussion specifically of Laurent, a town promoters visualize building from scratch as a haven for deaf residents.

Marvin Miller, co-founder of the proposed community, said that if the ordinance had passed, the next step would have been filing a formal application and preparing economic, traffic and environmental impact statements.

The intent is still to break ground by this fall on 275 acres southeast of the intersection of Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 81, but Tuesday’s session showed residents are far from unanimous in their support.

Carl Koch, a lawyer from Mitchell representing Lacey Farmacy, a property near the Laurent site, said promoters have made too many unsubstantiated statements about the size of the community.

“They started at 1,200 people,” Koch said. “It grew to 2,400. Then it was 4,000, and now it’s 8,000 people. … They say they have financing in place for $200 million. Why should we believe them?”

Dan Kappenman, 54, who raises cattle west of Montrose, said Laurent is unnecessary and that the proposed ordinance would lead to undesirable development scattered about the county.

“Those people are welcome to move into any town in McCook County. We already have five towns here,” Kappenman said.

Cherene Zapp, 56, questioned such talk.

“I’m crippled. I’m a person. It doesn’t make sense to me to say ‘those people,’ ” said Zapp, who has multiple sclerosis and walks with a cane. She said Laurent would be a huge boost to local tax revenue that could, among other things, let the county install an elevator to the third-floor courtroom where Tuesday’s meeting occurred.

“Why are you turning down fresh money?” said Zapp, co-owner of a Main Street hardware store.

Miller, 33, who is deaf, communicated through Monique Roberts, from Phase II Interpreters for the Deaf of Sioux Falls.

“Obviously, emotions are running high in the room,” Miller told commissioners. “We’re still committed to this, because we will be neighbors. We’re not going anywhere.”

A layout for the community, named for French communicator Laurent Clerc, was presented in March at a retreat west of Madison. Miller said the weeklong series of meetings, called a charrette, cost $310,000, which he and his family covered. The town itself could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but he won’t say where the money is coming from.

Laurent, on land measuring a mile long and a half-mile wide, could have room for 8,000 residents. An initial commitment is from 129 families, said Miller, a Michigan native whose wife and four children also are deaf.

The two-week delay will give Roger Gerlach, the county’s state’s attorney, time to add language to the ordinance that would allow the public to vote in a referendum on zoning applications such as Laurent’s.

Giving county residents final say on such projects appealed to Commissioner Orville Hofer, who seconded Bill Smith’s motion for the delay.

“I like the idea of people having a choice. It takes a lot of pressure off the county commissioners,” said Hofer, an opponent of the Laurent project.

M.E. Barwacz, Laurent co-founder along with Miller, said later that such reasoning lets elected officials bypass their responsibility.

“Make a good ordinance, then elect people and expect them to do the job, to make decisions for the county,” she said.

It’s unclear, however, whether state law would allow such an ordinance. Legislative decisions by local boards can be challenged in a public vote, but administrative actions on zoning permits might be off-limits.

“Typically, the devil is in the details in those kinds of deals,” Larry Long, South Dakota attorney general, said in a phone interview later Tuesday. He said he couldn’t speculate on the merits on the McCook County ordinance.

Todd Epp, a Harrisburg lawyer representing McCook Citizens United, a group opposing Laurent’s proposal, said the additional language was appropriate.

“If the Legislature believes in local control, they should allow you to define what’s legislative and what’s administrative,” Epp told the commissioners.

The validity of such language was just one legal detail discussed Tuesday. Epp’s group said an 80-acre segment of the 275-acre Laurent site is zoned for agriculture use and not for commercial purposes. Using the land to build a town would first require rezoning that would be subject to public referendum, Epp said.

John Knox, the county zoning administrator, disagreed. He said the land in question has been commercial since at least 2002 and some of it since the 1960s. Some is rented for raising corn, but he said that is an agricultural use protected by a grandfather clause and would not be an obstacle to plans for Laurent.

Reach reporter Jon Walker at 331-2206 or 800-530-6397.

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