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After complaints, officials revist rules for issuing burn permits

| May 26, 2020 8:21 AM

Environmental health officials want to amend county ordinances to require that those planning larger burns notify their neighbors ahead of time.

Burn season wrapped up for the year with 836 residential permits issued as well as eight management burns and two landfill burns, said Jake Mertes, county environmental health officer. But he told the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners on May 13 that several property owners used residential permits to conduct what the health department considers management burns.

The former, according to the county ordinance, is the disposal of vegetative waste on private residential property. A management burn consists of any undertaking outside of that definition.

The problem arises when neighbors go unaware of a major burn on nearby property, Mertes said. Residents who weren’t expecting to be inundated with smoke often voice their ire with county officials, he said. After sitting down with fire and health department officials, Mertes wants to amend county ordinances to require anything meeting the definition of a managed burn be publicly advertised ahead of time.

“We want all management stuff to go through a public notice period so we don’t have people calling us to say, ‘I didn’t know this was going to happen and I didn’t make plans for the fact that my neighbor was going to pour smoke through my window,” Mertes told county commissioners.

The proposed language would require the individual planning the burn to take out an advertisement in a local newspaper of general circulation prior to the burn.

But county commissioners expressed a few concerns about the proposal, particularly a proposed public comment period for future management burns. Under Mertes’ plan, neighbors and other residents would have 20 days to weigh in on the project.

“I would like to read the comments,” Mertes told the board after County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) pressed him on the need for a public comment period.

“What if all the neighbors say they don’t want it?” asked County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1).

“It doesn’t matter — I just want to have it,” Mertes replied. “We’re not going to use it as an excuse to tell people ‘no.’ We just want them to have a dialogue with their neighbors that they’re going to do it.”

Neighbors could be notified without a public comment period, Bennett said.

Commissioners also worried that adding such requirements without updating the ordinance’s definition of a management burn would lead to legal issues and even lawsuits.

Mertes countered by saying he could tell, by looking at application, the difference between a residential and a management burn.

“I’m not trying to limit people,” he said.

“Exactly, but we need to make sure the regulation supports your intent,” Peck replied.

“Because it won’t fall to you, it will fall to us,” Bennett said.

Commissioners, though, were supportive of updating the county’s burn regulations to require notice in general. Peck suggested a required one-week notice for immediate neighbors or perhaps an announcement at the beginning of burn season.

Anything else and Mertes was asking for a headache, he warned.

“Otherwise, you’re going to get comments from people 10 miles away who think burn season is bullshit,” Peck said. “I think the key is that neighbors are notified.”