*Editor’s note: “THE PRICE OF SAND” – an advance preview of a locally produced frac sand documentary, is tomorrow Thursday, March 28 at 7 PM – Grandview Theater, 1830 Grand Ave., St. Paul, MN.
Rural Western Wisconsin is known for its hospitable nature, and its “live at let live” method of getting along. Many families have lived in homesteads for several generations, but many “new” (less than fifty year residents) folks have sought out the rolling hills, valleys, and small rivers that call to those in touch with the land. The tradition is that you may not have much, but if you have land, you have standing. The rights of landowners are held sacrosanct, and what you do there is mostly your business. Many who have arrived bring a different ethic, that land is also a collective resource, whose environmental protection is a must. It is the stage for conflict when the frac sand mines come to town.
Vance Creek is a non zoned township. You need a dog license, county permits for building and related activities but other than that, do what you will. The residents near the “four corners” area of SW Barron County watched for mining to arrive. It has spread West from HWY 53, the New Auburn area, and erupted just across the line in Arland Township (TWP). The railroad line along Hwy 8 through Taylors Falls had been improved and ready for shipping sand. The perfect place for mining is in the corner of the county where few pay any notice. The first mining site in Vance Creek Township was targeted adjacent to a large tract of Barron County Forest land, on which the county had denied mining permits. What caused Vance Creek to erupt in concern was the township wide realization that *** one of three town board members was having exploratory assessment for frac sand mining done on his land.
The strategy of concerned residents across Wisconsin is to avoid zoning, we don’t care for it here, thank you. Townships in the this area have been either passing “moratorium ordinances” on mining operations for anywhere from 6 months to two years, or they have been passing a township non-metallic mining ordinance that requires a permit for the operation of non-metallic mines and sets forth the application process. As soon as the mining exploration rumor was verified in the township a group of town residents started meeting, and asked the town secretary to put consideration of a draft moratorium ordinance on the agenda of the next town board meeting Jan. 8th 2013. Shit hit the fan.
The word spread that something was going on, politeness wouldn’t speculate on what, and if you didn’t want a mine surprising you, an evening at the town hall might be worth your while. Over a hundred people showed up that night, when a town board meeting might usually attract few if any, unless the tax rate was proposed to change. The author of the moratorium draft was there and most were surprised to see it wasn’t even on the agenda.
Jan 8th, 2013 Vance Creek, WI Town Board Meeting
Many think a town board is the place where your voice will certainly be heard, and government will listen. After all, we are all neighbors and just want the best. As the town chair said as he opened the meeting, ”We know we can’t please everyone and someone is always going to be disappointed”. The packed room of 125 people on a cold winters night found the town agenda to be the regular town business, with the exception that an attorney was present, hoping to be authorized to represent the town in these mining matters, and his hiring was on the agenda.
Because there was so many present an hour of “public comment” was scheduled. The attorney had told the board that silence, and no interaction with the public was their best course. As much as the public tried, the attending attorney would not engage or answer any questions. The Town chair confided he wasn’t hired as attorney yet, so how could he risk answering questions ? The comments ranged to: Can we just pass this moratorium? Can we set up a township committee to make recommendations? Can we do afford to do nothing? What about roads, and costs, and health dangers? What impact might a mine have on our quality of life? At least two out of the twenty or so comments offered a “positive” side; “Might a mine bring a few jobs to the township?” Another testifies he worked for a mine in Arland, WI and, “It wasn’t so bad”.
Now the official board meeting starts, and the attorney is asked to speak in support of him getting hired. The town chair reminds everyone this is an official meeting, and everyone had their say, and from now on comments were not appropriate or allowed. The proposer of the moratorium quickly asked why her item was not on the agenda? After some paper shuffling and angst the chair revealed it wasn’t appropriate until after the lawyer was possibly retained, and so was not added. The lawyer, from a fancy New Richmond firm talked about all the townships his firm had helped write ordinances for. Yes, he had drafted a couple moratorium ordinances, but he carefully explained they had a problem in his eyes. The right of townships to enact ordinances that included mining licenses had been upheld by the WI State Supreme Court. No township moratorium ordinance had ever been tested in Wisconsin yet he continued, and these corporations had some deep legal pockets. You don’t want to get in a legal fight with these guys do you?
A few old codgers interrupted anyway, trying to ask questions. One dismissed the town chairs careful explanation to be quiet now with the sentiments, “I am too old to be quieted.”, but he was quieted anyway. The lawyer skillfully dodged any specific legal advice, ending with, “I am just here to help you do whatever you want.” The chair asked if he could prepare an ordinance, and review or rewrite the moratorium if needed, and he affirmed he could. Could he have something ready in a month for the next town meeting?, “Sure”. After a request to have it available for review in advance it was agreed a draft would be posted on the town’s new website, the week before the next town board meeting. The attorney was hired and then the rest of the agenda was covered in silence, the paying of the town bills and such, and then adjourned.
Now the room erupted with conversation, not arguments or accusations, but the small talk of neighbors who haven’t seen each other for a while. What no wanted to talk about was that one board member had quietly abstained from all mine related votes. It was noted it was proper as a conflict of interest might be involved, but not talked about. In a small township board, it is kind of like any board, there is not a lot of power or glory in the work. You get to decide to buy a new plow for the town truck, or who gets a new culvert or driveway entrance. There is an honorary salary involved but it is a token, and really a volunteer service kind of job. Our town board only has five members. Two, the clerk and treasurer, don’t vote on town issues. That leaves three, and one is abstaining. I left wondering where this will end, and wishing the town members had a forum to talk, with the board, with the attorney, and each other.
Jan 15th Vance Creek Town Caucus for spring election candidates in April
The town caucus is our local nominating convention for nominees to the town board. You would think there would be speeches, and words of support, and cheers, but it doesn’t work that way. Slips of paper are handed out, one at a time for each office. You are asked to write the name of who you nominate. They are collected and counted. The two top nominees stand on the ballot for each of five offices, in random order. No speeches, no acceptance of nomination even…the two top vote get-ers for each seat take the nominations. As it happened, people who were concerned at the town board’s close-lipped attitude on the mining issue had alternate nominees ready, but you had to know their names to make your nomination count if you opposed the incumbents. No one opposed the treasurer and clerk of about eighty votes cast, but the incumbents and new nominees were pretty evenly split and are both on the ballot, the first time the whole voting board has faced electoral opposition since 1989.
Feb 12th Vance Creek Town Meeting
About the 6th, the lawyer drafts of the various ordinances were posted on the town website. For people not used to legal language they raised more questions than they answered. You would think this would be the time for questions followed by answers, by the attorney or the town board. Again another public comment period starts the meeting. People have many questions. Why is the distance limit above ground water so low at five feet? A candidate asked if the public could ask questions during the Attorney’s description of the Ordinances. The answer by the Board and Attorney was no. Who monitors and issues citations? What if citations are multiple, and ignored? What would any testing be? Who pays for it? Who does it? What about property value dropping? Is the Attorney contract a public record? Could a special hearing meeting could be held before a vote on the Ordinances? Can we have a moratorium and then to have a special hearing to listen to the constituents and to get a dialogue established. There were about 60 citizens at the meeting.
The comment period ends and the lawyer, Adam Jarchow, gives a summary and answers a few written questions in his legal way. He explains again that an ordinance, even without a lot of specifics is the best way to proceed. The best protection is through well-negotiated developers agreements with the town.
Jarchow recommends the board approve the mining ordinances. In just a few minutes, the deed is done. First the board member with an interest recuses himself, then the two remaining board members fail to motion for the moratorium proposal, and then in rapid fire proceedure, motion to consider and then approve the mining, mining citation, and blasting ordinances.
The citizens attending are then informed the regular town business will continue if they want to leave for home. Many stay, I guess because a town meeting is new and interesting.
March 12th Vance Creek Town Meeting
Same format with a public comment period to open the town meeting. There are fewer, maybe 35 people present. Most are past moratorium supporters, and the mood is somber. One resident chooses to speak. In the most respectfully careful and polite way he thanks the board and pleads with the board to keep residents informed on this issue. He says other townships have been faced with this issue and responded with a community dialog about the issue, and with their town board. He expresses disappointment that our township has not gone that route, and that response has created divisions between the residents that will be difficult to resolve.
The town board then continues with business, casually inquiring about payment for particular voucher payments submitted to be paid this month. No one mentions the $5000 lawyer fee to be paid for drafting the new ordinances, and all vouchers are approved, meeting adjourned, the last meeting before our April 2nd election.
Upcoming Spring Election
The part of our community concerned about the frac sand mining issue goes away feeling disenfranchised. At this level of government citizens had expected a dialog, not that their words of concern would just melt away like the slowly receding snow. These feelings are now channeled into expression publicizing the upcoming spring election. Citizens meet and plan a town wide calling list, inviting residents to attend a candidate meet and greet. Banners for the candidates spring up at the stop sign near the town hall, and our mailbox gets a campaign post card from each of the three new candidates. A “get out the vote” town wide call action is planned for this weekend, excepting of course, on Easter. I’ve been a resident for 35 years in the town, and never seen anything like it, three active campaigns for positions of local service.
In what is usually a very sparsely attended election, the frac sand issue has created a lot of interest. The *** new candidates have platforms they run on, but this is as much a referendum on how local government works, and what democracy looks like up close. What will happen Tuesday is anyone’s guess. There are several dynamics in play to influence what people will do in the voting booth. Involved is loyalty to friends, property rights, economic and health concerns, and how many years does it take before you are trusted as a town “resident”. I do know people are fed up with all levels of government with not feeling heard by them. Maybe this is the level they will take it out on. Change is in the air.
Many of the links in this article are possible because just this year our little town of Vance Creek has a website. A big step for transparency and sharing town information. It used to be only gossip. All the relevant documents are posted online at least for now.
Links include many articles and meeting summaries from the local rural newspaper about the mining and township issues. *** Thanks to reporter Dave Williams of the “Hay River Review” for sound local reporting!
There will be another follow-up article later this spring as things develop. Keep your eyes peeled for clouds of dust as you explore Wisconsin this summer!