Ethanol plant on track for rail

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11714985428856.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘The Winnebago County Board's debate of the heated issue drew a standing-room only crowd Feb.8.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117149859713885.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Board members lobby for votes during a 15-minute recess.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117149864714148.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘John Goebel, vice president of Wight Partners, LLC, asks the board to approve an amendment to allow for rail to the future site of Wight's ethanol plant.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117149868230886.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘John Harmon (R-4), standing left, and Pete MacKay (R-5) sat on opposite sides of the tracks.‘);

The Winnebago County Board gave its nod Feb. 8 to rezone 54.6 acres near Meridian and Kelly roads from agricultural to heavy industrial. The decision lays the tracks for Wight Partners International, LLC, to employ rail for distribution of ethanol from its future plant on the Winnebago Township site.

Concerned neighbors nearly derailed the project by requiring supermajority approval of at least 21 votes because of a legal objection.

The issue drew a standing-room only crowd of evenly-split supporters and opponents, guaranteeing an unpopular decision regardless of how the board voted.

The neighbors, who filed their most recent lawsuit last June, found themselves named as defendants in a $3 million countersuit filed by Wight in October. Wight representatives say they’re simply tired of ungrounded lawsuits from neighbors trying to put the brakes on the development.

Opponents argue the countersuit is simply a means to silence them, raising First Amendment questions. As far back as 1989, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP suits, were becoming more prevalent nationally, which was asserted at the time in an address given by Ralph Michael Stein at the Pace University School of Law Center for Environmental Legal Studies. The opponents of the proposal say Wight is trying to intimidate them with the suit.

Other critics of the proposed zoning map amendment question why rail wasn’t included in Wight’s initial plan, which anticipated a lower capacity.

“Wight knew it the first time it was zoned,” alleged Faye Lyon, attorney for the neighbors, during public participation. “They had to have known that the plant was to be a 100 million gallons. Wight also knew at the time that a 100 million-gallon plant couldn’t operate without rail service. They didn’t tell us that.”

Lyon also referenced a letter from Canadian National Railway, stating there is not sufficient land to support Wight’s rail plan.

“All of this is going unheeded,” Lyon added. “Actually, we’re being railroaded.”

Not so, said Wight Vice President John Goebel.

“Wight’s original plans did not envision using unitrains,” Goebel explained. “Consequently, we are proposing to use the 54 acres of land immediately south of the plant to develop additional rail capacity.”

The unitrains, Goebel said, will consist of 75 to 100 rail cars headed for a single destination.

“Transportation plays a key role in operating a successful ethanol plant,” Goebel added, “and the increased rail capacity will allow Wight to move product more efficiently and at less cost by rail, reducing trucks on the county roads.”

Addressing concerns of nearby property owners, Goebel noted 21 acres fronting Kelly Road would remain agricultural as a buffer. He did note, however, that there would be an emergency access to Kelly Road.

Goebel also argued residents needn’t worry about property values dropping.

Brian Brown, a property owner being sued by Wight, addressed the board next during public participation.

Brown began by listing numerous health and environmental concerns associated with the operation of an ethanol plant, but was quickly reminded the issue at hand was rail, not ethanol.

Brown then urged board members to deny the map amendment based on how Wight was conducting business.

“Vote ‘No’ because we, you and I, have been misled repeatedly through this whole process,” Brown urged the board. “Have the courage and integrity to recognize the inherent importance of the freedom of speech that we’re all entitled to. Don’t vote ‘Yes,’ and give your approval for the way that this company is doing business.”

Nearby resident Mary Osborn also addressed health concerns, citing 463 tons of pollutants, 80 gallons per minute of wastewater, odor and truck traffic.

Osborn argued Wight has not been forthcoming in its plans for the site.

“The reality is you don’t know what you’re voting on tonight,” Osborn said. “This developer has a plan for only 10 percent of the land in question, that is being asked to be re-zoned.”

Edgar Reilly, general counsel for Wight Partners, LLC, addressed the board next in public participation.

“We don’t like lawsuits,” Reilly stated, addressing the countersuit. “Wight Partners always tries to work things out with members of the community.”

Reilly argued Wight has been vindicated in previous lawsuits by property owners, who he said have been unable to substantiate their claims.

“We decided this had finally gotten out of control,” Reilly explained. “We are trying to build a business that brings jobs and money to the community. … Yet, we and you, in turn, are being held hostage by people who know how to use the legal system,” Reilly charged, eliciting laughter from opponents in attendance. “In our opinion, they know how to abuse the legal system.”

Reilly said the countersuit is about accountability.

Winnebago Farm Bureau President Earl Williams closed out the evening’s public comments.

Williams defended Wight’s updated plan for increased capacity, citing improvements over the last year in the efficiency of ethanol processing. Williams said rail is an important element in handling the higher volume.

“For those reasons,” Williams said, “we at the Farm Bureau, and farmers in the county, are strongly in support of this zoning map amendment.”

With the issue now on the floor, board members lined up on either side of the tracks. The split was not a partisan one.

Bob Kinnison (R-10) began the discussion by reminding fellow board members of the issue at hand.

“This is about rail, so we have a responsibility to look at this petition on its merits only,” Kinnison said. “I hope that everyone looks specifically at what this petition is about. It’s about the rail. It’s not about anything else.”

Requiring 21 of 28 votes, the amendment’s approval was looking tenuous at best, so Bob Hastings’ (D-13) motion for a 15-minute recess was granted by Chairman Scott Christiansen.

Some board members filed into a nearby meeting room, while others scurried about the chamber floor tallying anticipated votes.

Once reconvened, Rick Pollack (R-13) explained he’d be supporting the amendment, but assured nearby property owners the board takes their concerns seriously. Weighing heavily in the other hand, Pollack said, are the benefits of economic development and alternative energy sources to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Pollack, however, seemed a bit soured by Wight’s suit against its neighbors.

“I would hope, in good faith,” Pollack stressed, “that the Wight Corporation would withdraw their countersuit.”

Board members on both sides of the issue sent a message to Wight by erupting with applause and hear-hears.

Pete MacKay (R-5) said Wight indicated no need for additional land last year, and MacKay sided with the plant’s neighbors.

MacKay argued the odds are likely property owners will suffer heavy damages.

“All of you should think about what you’re about to do to these Winnebago County taxpayers,” MacKay challenged, reminding board members who pays their salaries.

MacKay then turned his attention to letters from unions in favor of the map amendment for the sake of new jobs.

“I don’t think they knew what they were asking us to do,” MacKay argued. “They’re talking about the hundreds of construction jobs that are gonna be created. … There simply aren’t going to be.”

“We don’t even follow our own zoning plan,” Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) pointed out. “If we aren’t gonna follow our own zoning codes, I don’t know why in the world we even have ’em.”

The shift from Agricultural Priority to Heavy Industrial District is not consistent with the county’s land use plan.

Aiello then questioned why 54.6 acres is required simply to accommodate rail.

“There’s got to be some other reason that they brought this in secondary to the other zoning petition,” Aiello alleged, “because I do think there’s gonna be other things put on there besides just this rail/train situation.”

Aiello said she’s not against ethanol,
but feels the board has not been told the truth.

John Harmon (R-4) argued the ethanol plant could actually raise neighboring property values, garnering snickers from throughout the chambers.

Harmon explained the project would reduce the tax burden, resulting in higher property values.

Clearly favoring the amendment, Harmon said simply, “This is good zoning.”

Harmon then noted the importance of jobs that would be created.

“One of the reasons we have a high crime rate is we don’t have jobs,” Harmon said. “If you let them sit around with nothing to do, they kill one another.”

Opponents groaned and rolled their eyes.

“It would not be right for people to put an ethanol plant beside your home and you not be able to raise your voice in protest,” George Ann Duckett (D-12) charged. “That’s what these people are doing.”

Duckett previously supported the ethanol plant, but Wight’s countersuit seemed to break the deal for her with regard to the map amendment.

Duckett still believes, however, that the plant will be good for the community.

After a quick jab at Harmon’s linking of reduced crime to a map amendment and ethanol plant, Paul Gorski (D-5) addressed health concerns based on his chemistry background.

“In terms of an industry coming to Winnebago County,” said Gorski, “I’d be a lot less worried about an ethanol plant than I would be a benzene or toluene or some other aromatic type of carbon plant coming to the area.”

“We as County Board members,” L.C. Wilson (D-12) said, “sometimes make decisions that are unpopular, but we sometimes have to make those decisions.”

Wilson voiced distaste for corporate lawyers going after the little guy, but admitted he was still undecided, which undoubtedly left many in the room on pins and needles.

Dorothy Redd (D-6) has been against the plant from the start.

“They should have known in the beginning that they needed a rail yard,” Redd argued. “That should have been in their plan.”

Redd expressed fears the site may later be home to a bio-diesel plant and lashed out at Wight’s lawsuit against its neighbors.

“There’s a First Amendment,” Redd reminded board members. “The neighbors are being sued so that they don’t have freedom of speech,” referring to SLAPP litigation.

Jim Webster (R-2) accused some board members of having not done their homework and defended Wight’s countersuit.

“Why is it right for one party to sue to get what they want, but when the other party decides to sue, something is wrong?” Webster asked. “I think the First Amendment works both ways.”

After much debate, the amendment narrowly passed with 21 votes. Karen Hoffman (D-11), MacKay, Redd, Aiello, Duckett, Dave Fiduccia (R-4) and Wilson voted no.

“Ethanol is an emerging industry, and we need to support it,” said International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) local 364 spokesman Darrin Golden after the vote. “It’s gonna help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and it helps create jobs for us, so we’re very happy.”

Reilly indicated he’d spoken with Lyon after the vote and hopes Wight may still salvage a good relationship with the nearby property owners.

“We are absolutely committed to continuing to work with the neighbors and resolve that situation,” Reilly promised.

Reilly was not able to say when ground will be broken.

From the Feb. 14-20, 2007, issue

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