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Petitioners mount effort to force citywide vote on Fufeng Group plant

During a loud meeting marked by upset residents, the City Council voted 5-1 to approve tax breaks for the proposed project.

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The future site of the proposed Fufeng Group project on the north end of Grand Forks. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — On Monday evening, Grand Forks City Council leaders met once again to talk about Fufeng Group. This week, they voted 5-1 to approve property tax discounts for the company's proposed project.

But just like in weeks past, a long line of public speakers got their chance to weigh in.

One of them spoke for several minutes about the forthcoming project, until City Council President Dana Sande — noting that the speaker had gone over her time limit — attempted to move on. She kept speaking over him, through the sounds of a gavel and longer, before demanding to know why the public didn’t get its say about the new plant’s arrival.

“Why isn’t it going to a city vote?” she asked. “What are you afraid of?”

The debate wore on. Sande had initially said he might ask the police to escort her away, before moments later offering to meet with her privately.

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“Other than the people in this room, everyone in our community is in favor of this project,” Sande said, drawing a loud, sustained round of shouts from the chamber, which was filled with numerous project opponents on Monday evening.

The moment was notable, because the central question of the debate — how the city really feels about the new Fufeng Group plant — soon could be tested. Opponents have begun gathering signatures to force a citywide referendum on its arrival. It’s a move that, if successful, would set the political table for one of the most important ballots in Grand Forks history.

It’s not clear if petitioners will succeed in their efforts, though, which they estimate will require collecting thousands of signatures in just a few weeks’ time. City Clerk Sherie Lundmark said she’s aware of the effort, but has not seen any official documents regarding the petition, and thus couldn’t comment on its legality or its future. She referred the Herald to City Attorney Dan Gaustad, who could not be reached for comment late Monday afternoon.

At stake could be hundreds of jobs, to be brought by a subsidiary of China-based Fufeng Group, and which top leaders at City Hall have pursued as a key to a new economic future for the community. But some residents, hesitant about the project’s ties to China, its price tag and more mounted a small but fierce resistance to the project.

The petitioners have been active on Facebook, where opponents of the project have sought out each other and created a small community. That’s also where an apparent image of the petition is now circulating, which lists Ben Grzadzielewski as one of its main backers.

“I think the people of Grand Forks need to have a say in this,” he said, emphasizing his worries about the rate at which the plant will consume water — especially after such a dry summer last year.

The petitioners’ leaders are all from Grand Forks, but appear to be closely linked to residents and business owners in Falconer Township, the area north of the city where the plant is proposed to be built and annexed within city limits.

“We’re all working together,” Grzadzielewski said.

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Speaking late on Monday night, City Administrator Todd Feland declined to speculate about the petition’s legality.

“We haven’t seen the petition itself, ourselves, but we certainly respect people’s opinions. That’s why we’ve had several meetings at which a lot of citizens commented, including tonight. … Certainly, this City Council has been open and transparent about hearing people out,” Feland said. “And we respect what people are doing in trying to oppose the project, but we continue to move forward with our due diligence efforts.”

The city’s charter notes that a referendum referred by petition must have the signatures of 15% of the total votes cast in the city in the most recent governor’s race. That’s likely between 3,000 and 4,000 signatures. Grzadzielewski said the group has about 1,000 right now.

He also added that, by his understanding of the city charter, the group has mere weeks to gather the requisite signatures. The city charter appears to indicate that the group has 30 days from Feb. 22, the date when the council passed a development deal with Fufeng Group, to contest it.

If the petition is legal and the signatures are accepted, an election would be held “no later than the next regular general election,” per the city charter, which is in June. The deadline to get on the ballot is early April.

Tax incentives

Monday evening’s meeting was a lightning rod for debate, like many other meetings, with numerous speakers fretting about ties to China. It’s been a central theme of criticism about the plant, though company and city leaders have insisted that it has no Chinese government ownership.

RELATED: Grand Forks’ Fufeng deal — expected to bring hundreds of jobs — runs up against anxieties over China

It also saw the passage of a tax break agreement for Fufeng Group, that — if the plant is developed — would deeply discount property taxes on its first 20 years of existence. That vote passed 5-1, with council member Jeannie Mock abstaining, given her employment at local engineering firm AE2S, and member Katie Dachtler opposing. Dachtler has previously voiced concerns that north-end residents have not been adequately consulted on the plant’s development.

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The vote is the final approval for the city’s portion of those tax breaks, which matches similar moves from both the school district and local county government that came in recent weeks. In all, those tax breaks will discount taxes 90% on the new construction during the first 10 years, then 75% in the following 10.

As the meeting wound down — and after most of the critics of the project had trickled from the chamber — Sande addressed the rest of the council. It had been a long night, full of shouting.

“Tonight was probably one of the most disappointing council meetings I’ve ever been to. It was emotional — I’m actually a little emotional about it. The personal accusations from people is very hard,” he said. “The good news is, I love fighting, so I’m happy to continue to deal with it. Because it’s what we have to do. And people lose sight of how important economic development and growth of our community is for all of our community — for the betterment of all of our businesses.”

Correction: In an early version of this report, the month of the next general election was incorrectly listed. It is in June.

Related Topics: FUFENG
Sam Easter is a freelance reporter who has been a regular contributor to the Herald since 2019. He covers a variety of topics, including government and politics.

In 2015, he joined the Herald’s staff as City Hall reporter, covering North Dakota politics at all levels and conducting Herald investigations through early 2018, when he began his freelancing career.

Easter can be reached at samkweaster@gmail.com or via Twitter via @samkweaster.
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