Last night a Monroe County committee voted to approve an open pit gravel mine on the Elroy-Sparta Trail along Logan Road in the Town of Wilton. But a lawsuit has been filed and the project’s future is still somewhat in doubt.
The Sanitation, Planning and Zoning, and Dog Control Committee voted to approve a conditional use permit for the road building company Mathy Construction after an intense, but respectful, public hearing attended by about 70 people, most of them opposed to the mine. During the public hearing 24 people spoke, with four in favor and 20 opposed.
Committee administrator Allison Elliot began the hearing by reporting that she had received 239 emails just between 2 PM and 5 PM that afternoon in opposition to the mine due to its impact on the trail.
When I spoke I pointed out that those emails were the result of a Bike Fed action alert and a similar alert from the national Rails to Trails Conservancy. I pointed out that it is significant that so many people from around the state and across the country would take time out on a workday to contact the county. It is an indication of how much this trail means to the state and the nation as its first rails to trails project.
It also indicates the importance of the trail as an economic resource. A rough estimate of the current annual economic impact of the trail would be about $2.6 million.
I finished my brief remarks on behalf of the Bike Fed and the trail by reminding the committee that the trail could not be moved while there were many possible locations for a gravel pit.
But my testimony was the least poignant. The committee also heard from a man with Parkinson’s Disease who lives near the mine site. Or it would have if he had been able to speak loudly enough. Instead, his neighbor spoke for him and pointed out to the committee that he was concerned that the mine with its vibrations and blasting would force him out of his home sooner than he would want to leave.
Testimony against the mine was also given by the assistant chief of the local HAZMAT team who was concerned about potential spills of harmful substances, Scott Hoffman of the Driftless Region Bicycle Coalition, and several local residents. There are 57 homes within a mile of the mine site.
In addition to Scott and I, several members of the public voiced their support for the trail and their concerns regarding the potential impact of the mine on it. One resident, who said he’s “no tree-hugger” commented that it was, “only a time bomb before a cyclist gets hit” at the Logan Road intersection. He also pointed out that his sons had both worked at the adjacent Tunnel Trail Campground and that the campground had provided good summer jobs for a lot of young people in the area. Earlier reports indicated that no new jobs would be created by the mine though no specifics on that were offered at the hearing.
In the end the committee imposed a number of conditions that had little impact with the exception of one condition that would prohibit operation of the mine on Saturdays. Mathy had wanted to operate the mine 24 hours a day Monday through Friday with only slightly more limited hours on Saturday. The committee did not approve the Saturday hours. Since many people ride the trail on weekends this is an improvement over the original proposal.
But when one of the committee members described this as a “compromise,” it produced incredulous gasps in the audience. For about an hour after the public hearing, but in open and official session, the committee negotiated with the Mathy officials who were sitting in the front row almost literally at the table with them. Repeatedly committee members asked Mathy if they “could live with” various restrictions, including not working on Saturdays. During that discussion about three-dozen people remained in the room, seated behind the Mathy officials. Many strained to hear the discussion as there were no microphones in the room. Committee members did not ask trail advocates or homeowners what they could live with. If this was a compromise it was a compromise between Mathy and itself.
Now the action moves to circuit court in Monroe County where attorney Glenn Stoddard has filed suit to stop the mine on behalf of the Tunnel Trail Campground owners. The suit claims that approvals from the Town of Wilton should be voided because town officials violated open meetings and conflict of interest laws and because they failed to follow their own ordinances, which require them to protect the public health and safety.
We will keep you updated as the suit progresses.
In addition, if the suit is unsuccessful and the mine moves forward the state Department of Natural Resources can insist on any number of treatments at the Logan Road intersection. Mathy President Scott Mathy said twice at the meeting that he would “do whatever the DNR recommends” regarding the trail intersection. Presumably, this would include construction of a bike underpass as was done at the Highway 71 intersection not far away. The Bike Fed will first support the lawsuit and demand an underpass if that is not successful.
Finally, thanks to all of you who contacted the county on behalf of the trail. No one should feel that this was a waste of time. We knew this was an uphill fight, but the town and the county needed to hear loud and clear that the trail matters to people in their own county and across the state and the entire country. This strong showing will produce dividends in the future.