Environmental proposal on hold
by CHRIS ROGERS
A proposal to allow the city of Winona’s Citizens Environmental Quality Commission (CEQC) to report directly to the City Council is on hold while the CEQC considers when to broach the issue again. Six months ago, the City Council voted to postpone the proposal until the CEQC and city staff could do more public outreach and respond to the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce’s concerns about the CEQC creating a new layer of local environmental regulation. The CEQC has tried to solicit public input and is editing its proposed mission statement to assuage the chamber’s concerns, but CEQC members say they are in no rush to bring their proposal back to the City Council.
What is the proposal?
The CEQC currently reports to the city’s Planning Commission. Both bodies are made up of citizen volunteers appointed by the mayor and City Council. This spring, the CEQC made its proposal to become a standalone commission, and the Planning Commission recommended the proposal to the City Council in a 3-2 vote. The main difference the change would make is that the CEQC would report directly to the City Council and could make recommendations to the council without going through the Planning Commission first. The change would also make it clear that the CEQC is not limited to planning and zoning issues, but could address environmental issues unrelated to city planning.
CEQC members have said that because many of the initiatives they want to work on are not related to planning and zoning, it makes sense for the CEQC to become a standalone commission. Council member Paul Schollmeier has said that it is high time for Winona to have an environmental commission, and that he wants to hear from the CEQC directly, without the Planning Commission voting down recommendations before they reach the council.
Opponents of the proposal — mostly the Chamber of Commerce — have said that the city’s current structure is not broken and does not need to be fixed. Chamber leaders and other business owners believe that the CEQC may propose new, local environmental regulations that would hurt local businesses.
Where does it stand now?
The City Council was set to approve the CEQC’s request in June, but after hearing numerous concerns from business owners, council members voted to delay the proposal and directed city staff and the CEQC to do more public outreach before bringing the proposal back to the council to make a final decision.
Four months later, the CEQC held public input meetings in October. Almost no one came. The CEQC got a grand total of two comments: a letter from chamber president Della Schmidt outlining her organization’s opposition and a comment from a citizen who wanted the CEQC to look into noise pollution from loud trucks.
In meetings this fall, the CEQC has been working on revising its mission statement to try to alleviate the chamber’s concerns and make it clear that the CEQC will not be a permitting or enforcement agency. However, CEQC members and city staff acknowledged that it is possible the CEQC — like other city committees — could recommend that the City Council adopt new ordinances or regulations.
CEQC members were disappointed by the low turnout at the public input sessions they hosted, and at a recent meeting, CEQC members discussed potential ways to drum up support for their proposal.
The group has no plans to bring its proposal back to the City Council in the immediate future, city staff and CEQC Chair Dan Hall have said. “The CEQC has no timeline at this point,” Winona Sustainability Coordinator John Howard told the Planning Commission last month.
“From my perspective, we feel no reason right now to push that agenda nor any reason to believe that the opinion of the council has changed from the past at this point,” Hall stated in an interview. “We’re just taking a wait-and-see approach and seeing if maybe when people get a little bit more used to what we’re doing, they’ll be a little more comfortable with the concept,” he added.
Asked what the CEQC was waiting for, Hall responded, “I wouldn’t say we’re waiting for anything in particular. Clearly the moment we chose was not the best moment because it just got slam dunked. I think the vote was 6-1 with only one in support on the City Council.” Schollmeier was the only council member to vote against delaying the CEQC’s proposal in June. Hall added, “I’m not sure when the right time will be, but we’re just not pushing that envelope right now.”
Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said it is up to the CEQC to decide when to bring its proposal back to the City Council, though the council could give the group a deadline.
Olson, Ballard would have voted ‘no’
When the CEQC’s proposal came before the Planning Commission on April 23, there were just five members present out of the Planning Commission’s nine members total. Only three members — a minority of the full commission — voted for the CEQC proposal.
When Howard updated the Planning Commission on the status of the CEQC’s proposal last month, Planning Commission members LaVerne Olson and Brad Ballard spoke up, saying that they oppose the proposal and would have voted against it if they had been present at the April 23 meeting.
“The committee puts a bad taste in my mouth because of actions that were taken and things that were proposed in the past,” Olson said when asked why he opposes the CEQC proposal. He said he was referring to environmental groups’ opposition to the Phillips/Cobblestone Creek subdivision in Pleasant Valley and other past developments.
“Business leaders have talked to me about their concern that a committee like this — if no one is overseeing them, it could add to the cost of projects,” Ballard said. “I think where they’re at underneath the Planning Commission is a good place to be,” he added.
Conversely, Planning Commission member Todd Paddock said of the CEQC proposal, “I’m disappointed that you haven’t received more support and that you’ve received as much opposition as you have. I don’t think that will help the prosperity of our city in the long run … and I look forward to a time when people understand that.”
The April vote could have gone differently if Ballard or Olson had attended, or it could have come down to the votes of Planning Commission members Ed Hahn and Amy Jo Marks, who were also absent in April.
That is part of how democracy works, Planning Commission member Peter Shortridge — who supported the CEQC proposal — told Ballard and Olson. The people who show up make decisions.