An impassioned public hearing at the Winona Board of Adjustment meeting on Wednesday concluded with a surprise vote, paving the way for a set of rail spurs on the city's West End. The board appeared ready to deny a variance request by Mikrut Properties LLLP to allow the company to construct two rail spurs 65 feet closer to a residential district than allowed by city code. Then, board member Laura Priem, who had spoken against the request, made a last minute change of stance and provided the swing vote needed to approve the variance.
Late in the meeting, Priem said the request did not meet two key questions the board asks when considering any variance request. "'Will the variance alter the essential character of the locality?' I think it will," she said. "'Is the variance request not based solely on economic consideration?' I think it's obvious that it is [based on economic considertions]."
Minutes afterwards, Priem agreed to approve the request on certain conditions. Those conditions—that Mikrut build an eight-foot fence around the railyard, maintain a visual barrier of evergreen trees, and limit operating hours—had been a part of the discussion throughout the meeting. When asked why she voted in favor of the variance after speaking against it, Priem said, "I just felt that the amendments would actually improve the situation." With those conditions in place, the "essential character of the locality" would not be altered, she said.
Five neighborhood residents asked the board to deny the request, citing concerns that the rail yards would pose a threat to neighborhood children and children from two nearby daycares who play at Belmont Whitten Park, which is adjacent to the future rail yard. Neighbors were also concerned about noise from the rail yard and about the health effects of silica dust from rail cars carrying frac sand at the adjacent transport facility which is permitted for transporting frac sand.
Owner Rich Mikrut said that the rail yard will not create any more noise than the running rail lines adjacent to his future rail spur and that while he will ship frac sand at that location if he has the opportunity, sand-hauling rail cars are always covered.
"I heard what Rich [Mikrut] said, that there will be no impact. That's easy for someone to say, but harder to live with once it's there," nearby resident Judy Freeman told the board. "It is a quiet neighborhood and I would like it to remain so."
The homeowners nearest to the rail spur, Darcy and Brad Moreski, both spoke in favor of the variance.
"There are three existing rail lines there now," Brad Moreski said. "Three more lines is not going to have a huge effect on my area."
Mikrut and the Moreskis said that a broken fence allows access to the running rail line and adjacent Pelzer Street underpass, where there is a great deal of graffiti and empty alcohol bottles, perhaps from kids hiding there and drinking. The fence Mikrut will be required to build will fix that, the Moreskis said. The area is more dangerous to neighborhood kids now than the rail yard would be, they added.
"If the fence is in disrepair that sounds like a problem for the city," said audience member Marie Kovesci.
Kovesci was one of several non-neighborhood residents who were also in attendance, some of them wearing bright green stickers that read "DENY."
Joe Morse was another such attendee, who told the board, "We know the material that is going to be in those cars is a Class I carcinogen. It's way premature to grant a variance on this until the air quality concerns are resolved with the city."
Board member David Kouba also opposed the variance, citing concerns about safety of children at Belmont Whitten Park. "We must remember that we are also here to protect the safety and welfare of the citizens," he said. "Of all the calls I received, not one involved jobs or tax revenue but the safety of the children who play in that park."