McGregor delays passage of ordinance that would prohibit outdoor furnaces

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Backwoods Bar and Grill and Event Center utilizes an outdoor wood burning furnace, a heating system that would be prohibited by a proposed McGregor ordinance. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten


Final passage of an ordinance that would have prohibited outdoor furnaces in McGregor was put on hold last week, following public outcry that the rule would unfairly impact the Backwoods Bar and Grill and Event Center.

“There are a lot of people in attendance who are very interested in this and very concerned, and I appreciate that,” said mayor Lyle Troester at the July 21 city council meeting. 

He also referenced a petition with over 70 signatures that called on the council to delay its final vote. The petition called Backwoods an important business, providing employment and valuable restaurant/bar services to local residents and the city’s important tourist industry.

“Backwoods is a strong supporter of our community,” the petition read. “The Backwoods provides free or low cost space for important community events hosted by local organizations such as the Festival of Trees, Friends Helping Friends and more.”

“But there’s been a lot of misconceptions,” Troester said. “I don’t want anyone to think this is personal or taking on a certain business. I’m a big customer of Backwoods, and it pained me to bring this whole thing forward, but there are other factors in town. It’s my duty to bring it forward.”

The issue was first brought up earlier this year, when complaints surfaced accusing the restaurant, which utilizes an outdoor wood burning furnace, of burning improper materials such as wet wood and garbage. Troester said the furnace’s smoldering effect has spread smoke throughout downtown, and even into a neighboring restaurant through the building exhaust system.

“I’ve been called three or four times to a fellow restaurant and there’s severe damage there. When I was there, you honestly could not stand it in the kitchen. It’s absolutely serious when [smoke] goes in there and fills the place. It drives every customer out. Who is going to be responsible if someone falls over?” he asked. “People asked me how the town of McGregor could allow that.”

Troester said the city pursued an ordinance against outdoor furnaces as a health issue. 

“If you had 10 of these, you wouldn’t be able to walk down Main Street,” he added. “Runners have gotten a hold of me and said they go to Prairie du Chien to run because they can’t stand it in the wintertime.”

Backwoods owners Andy and Kari Waterman, along with property owner Jim Boeke, claim they were blind sided by the city actions. No complaints were leveled previously, and they noticed no soot from the smoke.

“It’s been in there four years, and we never had an issue until last year,” said Andy Waterman. “We did have a maintenance issue heading into March that created this. There was a water leak in the chimney, which was creating more smoke, but we could not shut down at that time because the water line could freeze.”

Waterman also admitted the business went through more wood than normal and, at times, had to utilize wet pieces.

“This year, we will not use [wet wood],” he stated. “I’m also not aware of any garbage going in other than some paper towels to help get the wet wood burning.”

“I can see this is an antiquated way to heat a business, and as we move forward we’ll try to get our building more efficient,” Waterman continued, “but, right now, this is more cost efficient for us.”

Boeke said he wasn’t aware of the outdoor furnace ordinance until prior to the second of three readings at last month’s meeting, and pled for more time to address any issues, or even transition the furnace to indoor use.

“We realize there have to be some things taken care of. We fully understand and want to cooperate in that area,” he remarked. “But there’s going to be an expense involved, and you’re going to work a real hardship on that business.”

Troester encouraged Backwoods, with matching funds, to pursue a business enhancement grant offered by the city.

“All these people want to help you. You could all chip in and start insulating the place. Help fix the problem,” he said.

Attorney Anne Kruse, who helped lead the petition to delay passage of the ordinance, also asked for time. She said the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has the capability to perform testing on the furnace and assist in recommendations for modification of the system to improve its performance and avoid problems with smoke.

Kruse agreed to help facilitate the testing process, but was unsure when it could be performed or if a fee was involved.

The council agreed to postpone the ordinance’s final reading 90 days until scientific data could be gathered.

“The main thing is we solve this and not risk health,” Troester said. “And we certainly want your business to thrive.”

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