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After heated moments, Grand Forks City Council approves annexation for new plant

Before the vote, there were a number of speakers who voiced opinions about the city’s annexation plan.

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A screenshot from the Monday, June 6, Grand Forks City Council meeting.
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GRAND FORKS — As Grand Forks has negotiated to bring Fufeng Group to the city, there have been plenty of heated moments at City Council meetings. But Monday saw its most heated yet, as a man addressing City Council leaders threatened in a loud exchange to “come across this table.”

Moments later, the council voted 6-1, with Katie Dachtler dissenting, to annex a portion of land north of the city, absorbing the likely future site of a Fufeng Group corn mill and a strip of businesses along Highway 81.

After the meeting, City Planner Ryan Brooks told the Herald that he believes the annexation will take effect immediately.

The move has been contentious, as area property owners have fretted for months about the higher taxes and costs in the move out of Falconer Township, where they were previously located. They’ve also worried about what kind of neighbor China-based agribusiness Fufeng Group will be, and what increased truck traffic or odor could mean for their cluster of businesses.

Before the vote, there were a number of speakers who voiced opinions about the city’s annexation plan. One of them identified himself as Jerol Gohrick, president of the North Dakota Sons of Liberty, who said he’d driven 300 miles to be at the meeting.

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“You smug asses stand up there and you do this to the citizens here. How rude,” he said, before mentioning the lawsuit currently unfolding over the city’s decision to reject petitions that called for a citywide referendum on Fufeng’s arrival. “How do you sit there and deny the right for these people to have a vote, to have a voice, to have anything?”

As Gohrick began to address City Administrator Todd Feland, sitting several feet to his right, Mayor Brandon Bochenski asked Gohrick to address elected officials on the dais before him. That’s when the loud, abrupt exchange began.

“You want to laugh at me again?” Gohrick asked. “Laugh at me one more time, I’ll come across this table at you. You shut the hell up. I have got the floor, don’t I? Do I have the floor?”

It wasn’t clear who Gohrick believed had laughed at him, though he and Bochenski were the only speakers at the moment.

“Sir, you are not allowed to disrespect and speak in that manner,“ Bochenski interjected.

“You disrespect these people every day,” Gohrick responded.

“Sir, you can continue to speak, but you’re going to have to tone it down,” Bochenski said.

After another several moments, during which Gohrick asked the council to keep the Chinese company out of Grand Forks, the end of his remarks were met with a round of applause from guests in the council chambers.

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More on Fufeng
South Dakota U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, one of 51 U.S. representatives who signed the Sept. 26 letter, told Agweek in a prepared statement, “China is not our friend, and if a purchase such as the one near the Grand Forks Air Force Base is a strategic move by the Chinese Communist Party to intercept sensitive U.S. military communications, this would cause serious problems."

The charged moment was a reminder of how divisive the Fufeng issue has at times been in Grand Forks. Notably, City Council leaders were offered increased security and a door with keypad entry after City Council member Ken Vein was followed to his car after a late-winter meeting.

RELATED: Anger over Fufeng Group raises concerns, questions in Grand Forks

Other speakers Monday night discussed what they saw as frustrating public expenditure to support Fufeng Group’s arrival. The city is spending significant sums on nearby infrastructure; it’s also offering Fufeng significant local property tax breaks for the first 20 years of the corn mill’s life.

“I’m against the annexation of my property,” one speaker said. “In the time that I’ve come up from nothing, started from nothing. I’ve paid for my own water lines out there, paid to bore the gas lines out there. Everything. Nobody’s ever handed anything out to us.”

As part of its annexation decision, the council reviewed protests against the annexation — legally filed opposition to the move. If more than 25% of the property owners — by land area — had protested then the annexation would have been forced into mediation. Last week, City Hall said only 13% of the property area had filed a protest.

Phil Kraemer, board chairman of Falconer Township, spoke about his own protest to the city.

“Yes, we’re not property owners in the annexation area, but I do think we have skin in the game as losing properties out of Falconer Township,” he said, describing revenue loss for the township.

Through all the discussion on the project, there was one especially notable comment. Tommy Kenville, chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce board, said the chamber supports “phase one of the development agreement process,” referring broadly to the city’s recent negotiations to explore Fufeng’s arrival. Given the deep divisions in the business community on the project and annexation, his appearance was remarkable.

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“The (Economic Development Corporation) and the city have done an excellent job with this process,” Kenville said. “There have been plenty of opportunities for input and questions.”

But the mood of the gathered crowd at the meeting was decidedly against Fufeng’s arrival. Craig Spicer, one of the business owners along Highway 81, summed it up near the end of the meeting, sensing that he and his neighbors knew where they stood.

“Who is behind this project that you people are so bullheaded that you can’t see the facts of the people that voted you in?” he asked the council. “I really don’t understand how you people think you’re going to keep your jobs come the next election.”

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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