The Buffalo County debate over whether to allow the development of a frac sand trans-loading facility on Highway 35 across from Cochrane-Fountain City (C-FC) School has been renewed, after landowners and Glacier Sands, LLC, sought a permit for the 350-acre project for the second time in as many years.
Buffalo County officials denied a permit for the facility last year, following intense public debate. Billboards and bumper stickers proclaimed opponents' opposition to the development. Vocal activists expressed fears the plant would create health and safety concerns for children at the school and neighboring residents, while supporters advocated more quietly, claiming the facility would jump-start a failing Buffalo County economy.
The C-FC School Board spent thousands of dollars last year on outside legal representation to fight the sand plant plans. Last week, the board met in closed session with its attorney to discuss the latest proposal. While the trans-loading facility would be erected on the same 350-acre parcel along Highway 35, this time around, developers plan to use a conveyor system to bring sand to the site from Highway 88 as a way to reduce the number of trucks that would have to navigate the intersection near the school. Rail cars would be loaded from the facility to take the sand elsewhere for use in the hydraulic fracturing oil and natural gas industry.
The addition of a conveyor system to the plan did not sway the C-FC school board, which voted Wednesday to submit letters to the Milton Town Board objecting to the development proposal. Superintendent Thomas Hiebert spoke against the proposal last week during a public hearing before the Milton Town Board, which is expected to vote on whether to support or oppose the plan before Buffalo County Board members cast their votes on March 4.
"A school would not be allowed to [be built] next to an industrial site," Hiebert told the board, "so why put an industrial site next to a school?"
Attorney Jay Squires, on behalf of the school district, noted that developers are first seeking to rezone the property from agricultural to industrial, and permits specific to the trans-loading facility would follow. Rezoning the property to allow industrial development, argued Squires, would allow a host of other intense property uses, many of which are not compatible with the neighboring school and residences.
Robert Kamrowski, who owns a portion of the 350-acre site, spoke in favor of the proposal, and said Glacier Sands had worked to address concerns about the development. The land is poor for farming, he told the board, adding he planned to continue living near the proposed sand facility. "I would not support practices that would put my family in jeopardy," he said. "New industry will add jobs and attract residents. We cannot be resistant to change."
John Starkey, who also owns a portion of the site but lives outside of Wisconsin, spoke in favor of the proposed development, and said his property rights should stand for something. "They say I own the land, but sometimes I feel like the government owns it," he told the board.
Starkey also cited an example with which some opponents later took issue: he grew up in a small coal mining town in Kentucky. "We had the same issues that you guys have here," such as truck traffic and dust, he explained. "But in the long run, those [mining] companies pulled out; our town is now like a ghost town. It's embarrassing. A lot of the businesses are boarded up. There's not much left there. It was awful for our schools."
C-FC School Board Clerk Jo Ressie thanked Starkey for the example. "I'm afraid that will happen here also," she said of what the community might face when the mines, and related loading facilities, leave town.
Sharon Kamrowski, who lives adjacent to the site of the proposed facility, said she would have to deal with lights in her windows at night, noise, vibrations, and dust if the sand operation were approved. "Rehearsed sound bites" and "hollow statements" were what proponents' positions were made of, she said. "Say no. Do the right thing. This is our home, our community, our lives."
Most residents who spoke during last week's hearing said they did not want Glacier Sands as a neighbor, although several said the county's economy was dismal and needed new industry. Laura Schiffli said she grew up with the Cochrane rail spur in her backyard, and said it was the spur that made Cochrane grow from an agricultural area into a small Wisconsin city. "We need to tap into the potential [the proposal] offers our area," she told the board. "People are saying no to frac [sand]; they say no because they see signs in people's yards or some friend or neighbor tells them to be afraid. Don't be afraid of change. I'm certainly not, and I welcome it. Our county's survival depends on it."
Many residents said they felt the proposal — and influx of related mine requests — was dividing the community. "It's maddening. It's like a nightmare," one resident offered.
The Buffalo County Board and Buffalo County Land Resources Committee will meet in joint session on Thursday, February 13, at 6 p.m. at the C-FC School auditorium, for a public hearing on the rezone request. The County Board is expected to vote on the proposal on March 4 at 7 p.m. in the County Board room at the County Courthouse in Alma, Wis. The Milton Town Board will vote on whether to recommend the zone change to the county during its regular meeting on February 19.