Where have all the people gone? Members of the Winona City Planning Commission asked one another that very question Wednesday during the first of two scheduled roundtable discussions. Assistant City Planner Carlos Espinosa anticipated a large crowd for the meeting, which environmental groups had requested, but only three members of the public showed up.
Dwindling attendance numbers at recent Planning Commission meetings and a poor turnout at the roundtable discussion prompted Chairman Craig Porter to assume the commission was doing its job.
“We’ve basically opened up the meetings to the public, something we’ve never done before. And we’re offering up a roundtable for the public, which I don’t think has been done in the last ten years,” Porter said. “And as the number of people at the meetings tapers off, I can only interpret that to mean we’ve addressed concerns.”
When the commission was charged with studying the industry during the moratorium, they redefined meeting procedure to allow not one but two open forums during each meeting to hear public comment. At the height of citizen participation in April, dozens took the podium to voice their concerns.
“People took a lot of time out of their day to come to these meetings and so did I,” Wendy Davis, a member of the commission, said. “We have to go on the facts that we’re given and what we were told by the public. But I’ve been here too, and I’ve been listening.”
Lewiston Township resident Joe Morse, one of three citizens to participate in the roundtable discussion, disagreed with Davis’ assessment and said the public is disappointed.
“We really feel like there is no point to us attending these meetings anymore because we feel our recommendations aren’t being seriously considered,” Morse said. “We feel like this business is going to be allowed to operate regardless.”
Commissioner Dale Boettcher said he understood the feelings of disappointment, but said the commission is strictly an advisory panel and is working with the community’s best interests in mind.
“We do listen to you and looking back at all the concerns that have been brought to us, I feel we have dealt with them,” Boettcher said. “We are having a roundtable. We are having open forums at the meetings. We are listening. But we have guidelines we must follow, too. Nothing happens overnight.”
Throughout the last six months, the Planning Commission has addressed issues regarding habitat and wetland, air and water permitting, environmental review, and traffic impact, and compiled seven recommendations to the City Council.
Espinosa said the roundtable was an opportunity to get the recommendations down on paper to see what the commission has accomplished.
The Planning Commission recommends:
• Revising the City’s extraction ordinance to mirror the county’s ordinance. Espinosa said this revision would better address any issues that may arise in future city mining activities.
• Entering into a nonconformity agreement with Biesanz Stone Quarry to better regulate the future expansion and reclamation plans. A sample nonconformity agreement has been crafted and will go before the City Council on October 15 for further review.
• Adding language to the city’s Performance Standard section of the zoning code that would require sand operations to conduct moisture testing on materials that have the potential to emit particulate matter. Espinosa said this recommendation would ensure the public isn’t exposed to crystalline silica.
• Adding an environmental assessment worksheet checklist to the city’s extraction and mining ordinance.
• Asking the City Council to take formal action in support of a generic environmental impact statement. Espinosa said the commission’s recommendation was sent to the Environmental Quality Board last week and will be up for review at their upcoming meeting.
• Adopting site-by-site analysis findings at the eight sand washing, processing, shipping, and mining sites in the city.
• Drafting an amendment pertaining to traffic impact analyses and road use agreements with future operations that have the potential for bringing added truck traffic to Winona.
These items will be compiled into a final list of recommendations at the end of the moratorium.
“I believe we’ve addressed concerns from the environmental groups and from the city,” Boettcher said. “I believe we have not deterred business at this point and I think we are on schedule.”
The next City Planning Commission meeting will be Monday, September 24 at 4:30 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall.