After 3 decade career with Cass County, Paul Fairbanks set to retire

WALKER -- A lot of young people grow up vacationing beside northern Minnesota's lakes. Some would like to find a way to have a career as adults in the lake country, but not many actually do. Paul Fairbanks did. And now he is getting ready to reti...

Paul Fairbanks, Cass County Planner and Solid Waste Administrator. Photo by Monica Lundquist
Paul Fairbanks, Cass County Planner and Solid Waste Administrator. Photo by Monica Lundquist

WALKER - A lot of young people grow up vacationing beside northern Minnesota's lakes.

Some would like to find a way to have a career as adults in the lake country, but not many actually do.

Paul Fairbanks did. And now he is getting ready to retire July 31 after a 30-year career with Cass County.

He grew up in Minot, N.D., and his family vacationed at resorts near Walker, Longville and Nisswa.

Fairbanks continued his education after high school at Minot State University and North Dakota State University, with majors in social science and community and regional planning.


He was working in planning and zoning for Clay County (North Dakota) in 1988 when he noticed an opening for solid waste officer in Cass County and successfully applied for the job that brought him to Walker.

Fairbanks added planning and zoning work to his solid waste duties after the first county water plan was completed, he said.

Tim Richardson was the first Environmental Services Department director under whom Fairbanks worked.

In 1995, according to county board minutes, Richardson was tapped to oversee the county's technology department, and Fairbanks was named ESD director and solid waste administrator.

Fairbanks continued in that role until 2005, according to board minutes, when he returned his focus to the day-to-day planning and zoning and solid waste operations as county planner and solid waste administrator.

John Sumption replaced him as ESD director. John Ringle succeeded Sumption as ESD director upon Sumption's retirement from the county in 2008.

Fairbanks remembers his years as ESD director as Cass County's peak development years. The population and new development escalated the most.

There regularly were two to three plats of nine or more lots before the planning commission every month then, he recalled. Today, it has been five years since a plat that large has come before the commission, he said.


When Fairbanks came to Cass County in 1988, zoning staff looked at black and white paper maps to find neighbors within one-half mile of variance and conditional use applicants to be able to notify neighbors of public hearings. They looked up neighbors' addresses on tax records, then hand typed on a typewriter mailing labels to send out the notices, he recalls.

Now, staff can look up neighbors electronically on color maps that electronically give staff the mailing addresses of neighbors within one-fourth mile and send the information to printers, which automatically spit out the mailing labels, he said.

When Fairbanks started as solid waste officer, Cass County had three unlined landfills. The county-owned one serving Walker-Hackensack and one for Remer-Longville. A private operator owned one under contract with the county called Maple Landfill, which was located northwest of Pequot Lakes.

The state notified the county they had to close those landfills and either develop one which had a liner under it in the county or send its garbage out of the county to one that did have a bottom liner.

Cass opted to close its landfills and ship garbage elsewhere. It cost Cass County $1 million to close each of its three landfills, Fairbanks said.

The county board adopted a solid waste assessment fee charged to all developed properties on the property tax bills to pay the cost over time to close the three landfills.

Each of the old landfills was covered with plastic, then soil, then topsoil. Today, each looks like a grassy area with a few plastic pipes in it, which vent methane gas from the decaying garbage underneath.

That solid waste fee was continued after the landfill closure cost was paid, Fairbanks said, to enable the county to accept recyclables, household hazardous waste, appliances, electronics and other items free at the disposal sites around the county.


Today, that assessment fee costs residential property taxpayers $66 annually. Commercial properties pay $100 to $500 with their annual property taxes, based on their property value.

Cass County recycles about 35 percent of the waste stream from the county today.

The challenge today, Fairbanks said, is to find enough markets for recyclable materials and to keep non-recyclable materials out of the recycle collection stream that contaminates it. Cass sees about 8 to 10 percent contamination, but is trying to better educate the public.

Cardboard is still separated from paper at the county's main transfer station north of Pine River, but all other recyclables are now mechanically sorted at a plant in Minneapolis.

Cass received a grant in 1994 to build its transfer station north of Pine River. There, all garbage and recyclables are collected in separate areas.

Initially after closing its own landfills, garbage was sent either to Gwinner, N.D., or to Elk River. Today all Cass garbage goes to Elk River.

As electronic use has increased so, too, has electronic waste, Fairbanks said. Cass annually collects 50 tons of electronic waste today.

Cass County began land use zoning in 1970 for shoreland areas only, choosing to set its shoreland 1,320 feet (one-fourth mile) back from the lake rather than the state-set 1,000 feet.


In 1997, the county made its land use zoning county-wide, but with less strict regulations for areas beyond the shoreland. About the same time, the county began requiring that landowners have their sewer inspected before any new permit would be issued.

This year, Fairbanks said the success of that program has seen enough of the underperforming and failing systems replaced, so effective Aug. 5 the county mainly will require a sewer inspection for changes to occupied buildings and for variances and conditional use applications.

Garage, fence, shoreland alteration and other permits unlikely directly to affect the sewer system will no longer trigger a sewer inspection.

Zoning ordinances have required regular updating as property uses have changed and new issues have arisen, he said.

Applicants are seeking permits for larger houses and more permanent residences instead of small cabins, Fairbanks said. He attributes this to the retiring Baby Boomers.

He thinks the ESD staff has become more professional over the years. There are better mapping and permitting procedures today, he added. The county now buys new vehicles for ESD instead of giving them hand-me-downs from the sheriff's department, he said.

Fairbanks has watched the decline of the mom and pop small resorts. Surviving resorts have had to get larger to support a variety of public-demanded amenities like golf, exercise equipment, Internet connections and big screen televisions.

"In all the years, I've always had a good working relationship with all the county boards," he said, listing the names of many going back to 1988.


Fairbanks has a son and granddaughter who live in Cottage Grove and a daughter who lives in Battle Creek, Mich.

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