Discussion quickly turned into shouting and hurled accusations at a public hearing on Wednesday when citizens clashed with members of the Winona Board of Adjustment. The public hearing was held to address a variance request to a silica sand conditional use permit (CUP) from CD Corporation. CD Corp. owner Dan Nisbit said the variance would allow his company to seek more business on the river.
The board unanimously approved the request, which allows CD Corp. to double the number of barges the company can move from 24 to 48, and also to reduce the moisture level in stockpiled sand at the port from 4 percent to 1.5 percent. That decision came after a nearly two-hour tongue-lashing from area citizens.
"Asking for a variance itself is the first problem," Winona resident Reggie McLeod said. "If the law works well, there shouldn't be variances. The more important reason for having a moratorium is to establish baseline data on the amount of silica sand in the air. But, with no data, we are just guessing. And when it comes to the health of our citizens, we don't elect people to commissions to just guess."
"At the port, we are not essentially adding trucks, we are merely evolving with freight trends," Nisbit said. During the 2012 season, CD Corp. loaded approximately 50 barges and shipped nearly 150,000 tons of sand. "We have a customer down in Texas that wants the amount of sand that is very close to what we can handle [per the CUP guidelines]. We want to go forward and secure other business in the future."
Winona resident Marie Kovecsi expressed concern about the potential for added trucks and agreed with McCLeod, saying more study needs to be done.
Tempers quickly flared after an audience member accused a board member of a conflict of interest, and comments about the port's exemption from the moratorium arose. The heated rhetoric prompted Assistant City Planner Carlos Espinosa and Economic Development Director Lucy McMartin to remind citizens to speak only on issues related to the CUP variance request.
Winona resident Jim Gurley accused Chris Sanchez, board chair, of secretly making financial transactions with Nisbit and CD Corp. However, Sanchez, a longtime Winona realtor and owner of Winona Listings, said that was not the case.
"[Nisbit] owns investment rentals and my wife works with his wife to find renters. That's it," Sanchez said. "I have no business with CD Corp., I have no business with the shipping or hauling industry. My company helps them [Nisbits] find renters."
Gurley demanded that Sanchez abstain from voting on the CUP variance and questioned whether Sanchez had worked with Nisbit before or after approving the original CUP request in June.
"I didn't feel like I had to abstain from voting, but I did because they wanted me to," Sanchez explained. He also said he is unsure of when his company first began finding renters for the Nisbits' personal investment rentals, but said it wasn't that long ago. "I've been doing business here for 15 years, and I help every person that comes through our door. It would be a different story if I was getting any financial or monetary gain from CD Corp., but I haven't."
McMartin, whose job requires her to spend nearly 75 percent of her time serving as the Assistant Executive Secretary to the Winona Port Authority, said legal counsel had been sought on whether Sanchez should be allowed to vote. Sanchez read a statement from City Attorney Chris Hood that defined the board's role in making decisions and said he found it was appropriate for Sanchez to vote.
McMartin once again reminded citizens to speak only to the variance request. However, Winona citizen James Johnson felt his input regarding the port's exemption directly related to the bigger issues surrounding the controversial industry.
"We are repeatedly denied transparency and I don't know what it is going to take to get a concrete answer," Johnson said. "This issue is so much bigger than just trucks and sand. We need a more comprehensive answer as to why we are seeing an application during a moratorium."
After Winona City Inspector Steve Carson warned Johnson to stay on topic or sit down, audience members stood up in defense of Johnson, prompting Carson to push the silent alarm button under the council table that summoned a police officer. An officer arrived, but no citations were given.
Winona resident Todd Paddock expressed his concern for the potential for added truck traffic, though he said he felt the variance request was reasonable.
"Once I learned the system [of CD Corp.'s operation], I could not reasonably object to their request. I think it's a reasonable compromise," Paddock said. "I don't think we have information, thus far, that indicates a facility like this poses any particular danger to our health. I didn't think I would end up here, but I do still think truck traffic is something we should continue to pay attention to."
Board members said they listened to each concern brought up by members of the audience, and decided the variance request met all requirements; they approved both conditions.
Nisbit said he was pleased with the decision, and that CD Corp. will not put the new limits in place until the 2013 shipping season. The moratorium on new frac sand operations expires in March 2013.
Kovecsi, speaking on behalf of Winona Area Citizens Concerned About Silica Sand Mining (CASM) said the group is planning to meet later this week to discuss the possibility of an appeal.