Meteor Timber permit to fill enough wetlands to cover 20 football fields was approved by DNR higher-ups after staff said it should be denied.
TOMAH — Former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employees are questioning the agency’s decision to allow a Georgia company to fill rare wetlands for a frac sand processing facility in Monroe County.
“I’ve never seen a permit issued like this,” said Gregg Breese, who worked as the DNR’s shoreland and wetland zoning program manager and now prepares permit applications in the private sector.
At issue is a permit allowing Meteor Timber to fill in 16.25 acres of wetlands, including more than 13 acres of white pine and red maple swamp that wetlands ecologist Patricia Trochlell called “exceptional” and “irreplaceable.”
Trochlell, who retired last year after 37 years with the DNR, said she had never seen a permit issued for such a large swath of high-quality wetlands.
Breese and Trochlell noted that the permit was signed by the deputy bureau director, not a front-line specialist, and included a list of questions to be answered.
Meteor Timber permit to fill enough wetlands to cover 20 football fields was approved by DNR higher-ups after staff said it should be denied.
“The decision was made before the information was even obtained,” Trochlell testified. “It was a matter of getting the information to support that decision.”
They testified Monday at a hearing where the DNR is defending its decision against a challenge brought by Clean Wisconsin and the Ho-Chunk Nation.
The Natural Resources Development Association, a nonprofit lobbying group of which Meteor is a member, issued a statement Monday defending the approximately $70 million project, which is expected to support about 100 jobs.
“Instead of working together to make progress, extreme environmental groups like Clean Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates would rather obstruct the process and obfuscate reality by bringing baseless lawsuits,” said group spokesman Nathan Conrad.
Testimony is scheduled to resume Tuesday in what is expected to be a five-day hearing.
Administrative law judge Eric DeFort will determine whether the project will have significant adverse environmental consequences and is the least environmentally harmful alternative, as well as whether the agency had sufficient information and followed procedures outlined in state statute.
The project is on hold pending the outcome, though the Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday passed legislation that would allow Meteor to begin work right away.
Meteor has proposed to restore and preserve more than 630 acres of other land near the the 752-acre site near Millston, which would serve two nearby mines on land the company acquired in 2014, when it purchased nearly 50,000 acres of Wisconsin forest.
However, the DNR determined those mitigation efforts “are not likely to fully compensate” for the loss of the swampland, which is considered an imperiled habitat.
Trochlell said the soils supporting such wetlands take more than 1,000 years to develop.
Both former DNR workers said the permit opens the door to more such large wetland losses.
The permit itself includes an acknowledgment that approval “may lead to increased applications to fill rare, sensitive and valuable wetland plant communities.”
Breese testified he had never seen that type of language in a permit.
“This language sounds like somebody that is drafting a permit is concerned about the size … and the impacts … and is not completely comfortable stating what they would be,” he said.
Meteor has told DNR officials that its project is necessary to stop the land’s current owner, the A&K Alexander Cranberry Co., from clear-cutting the timber to pay off a loan that was taken out to settle previous wetland violations.
“This is a reasonable agreement that finds a solution to support both our economy and our environment,” Conrad said. “If this plan fails, 300 acres will be lost to clear cutting, animals will be run off, and the landscape will be anything but pristine.”
Wetlands are a key component of the ecosystem, acting as natural flood control and water filters that support a wide range of wildlife, including a disproportionate number of rare and endangered species.
According to the DNR, Wisconsin has only about half the amount of wetlands it did when the first European settlers arrived. Most of those remaining 5.3 million acres are in the northern third of the state.
WASHINGTON — Looking for common ground with your neighbor these days? Try switching subjects from the weather to Congress. Chances are, you both agree it’s terrible.
In red, blue or purple states, in middle America or on the coasts, most Americans loathe the nation’s legislature. One big reason: Most think lawmakers are listening to all the wrong people, suggests a new study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California-Santa Barbara with the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
“We have the best Congress you can buy and pay for,” said Chester Trahan, 78, of Palm Coast, Florida. “Congress, they’re subject to the special interest groups and that’s really who’s running the show.”
Hating Congress has become a lasting feature of American politics, regardless of which party is in power or whether the 435 House members and 100 senators pass lots of legislation — or don’t do much of anything at all.
A new poll from the AP-NORC Center found that 85 percent of Americans, including 89 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans, disapprove of the job Congress is doing. That might matter in this midterm election year, as Republicans defend their majorities in the House and Senate.
In the study by Stanford, UC-Santa Barbara and the AP-NORC Center, which was conducted in 2015 and again in 2017, only about 2 in 10 said they think Congress pays much attention to their own constituents or Americans as a whole, or even give much consideration to the best interests of those people.
Instead, most said Congress does listen to lobbyists, donors and the wealthy.
That’s exactly the opposite of the way people think Congress should function, the study found. The highest levels of disapproval came from Americans who felt the largest sense of disconnect between whom they think Congress should listen to and whom they believe Congress actually listens to.
That disconnect played out in the public square last week as the nation reeled from yet another mass shooting — this time, the Valentine’s Day killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Many raged over what they see as the National Rifle Association’s power to stifle efforts to tighten gun laws, including a ban on assault rifles.
“Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?” student Cameron Kasky demanded of Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who appeared on CNN’s “Stand Up” town hall.
Rubio, one of the gun rights groups’ top beneficiaries over his political career, would not make that pledge. Nor have other congressional Republicans, who are overwhelmingly favored by gun rights supporters when it comes to campaign contributions.
The disillusionment is not just about guns, and it’s not new. Democrats and Republicans alike see members of Congress as mostly listening to elites and donors rather than the ordinary people they represent.
Congress has rarely been especially popular in polls conducted over the past several decades, but approval of the House and Senate’s performance has been particularly low over the past several years. In polling by Gallup, Congress’ approval rating has been below 20 percent for eight straight years.
Americans are more likely to approve of their own member of Congress than of Congress generally, but even that rating is less than stellar. In the latest AP-NORC poll, 44 percent of Americans — 41 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans — approve of the person representing their district.
American apathy toward their lawmakers has become an area of scholarly study, with some researchers contending that when Congress doesn’t act, it’s often representing a divided electorate that can’t resolve disagreements, either.
That certainly describes the United States now, which is deeply divided over such uncomfortable matters as immigration, gun control and President Donald Trump. Even with Republicans in control of the presidency and the House and Senate, Congress passed just one significant piece of legislation during Trump’s first year in office — a $1.5 trillion overhaul of U.S. tax laws that Republicans hope will begin to boost American paychecks this year.
“It is not crumbs,” Trump said earlier this month in a brushback to Democratic efforts to campaign against the tax cuts.
In November, voters cast ballots for every House seat and 34 in the Senate. And it’s fair to say plenty of members of Congress have had enough of Congress, too — including more than 50 House members who have opted to leave rather than seek re-election.
Among the other reasons for all the Congress hate, fewer than 2 in 10 Americans in the new study said they think Congress passes mostly good laws. The remainder considers congressional output to be at best neutral, with over a third seeing it as mostly bad. At the same time, Americans who felt Congress should be passing either more laws or fewer of them were far more likely to disapprove of Congress than those who felt the number of laws passed by Congress is about right.
“Most of them have got it wrong,” said David Peterson, 67, a Republican-leaning Vietnam veteran from Torrance, California. “The fact that Congress can’t seem to come to grips with health care, can’t seem to come to grips with immigration, can’t seem to come to grips with legislating firearms. It makes me less optimistic.”
There was no mistaking Marshall Strelow’s stance on chickens.
The 10-year-old Onalaska boy was the first to speak at Monday’s hearing on an amendment to La Crosse County’s zoning ordinance to allow residents of platted subdivisions to keep chickens, and he walked up to the microphone and set three colorful stuffed chickens on the podium.
Before asking members of La Crosse County’s Planning, Resources and Development Committee to support allowing chickens in town neighborhoods, he offered a joke: “What do you call people who care for chickens?” he asked. “Chicken tenders.”
And, he added, “chickens are a great pet because they give you breakfast.”
Marshall’s parents, Kristie and Tyler, and several of his siblings also attended the hearing, along with about a dozen other supporters of the ordinance which, in its first draft, would allow property owners who live in platted subdivisions in the 10 towns that are under countywide zoning to keep up to five female fowls or rabbits of either gender on a lot up to an acre or 10 animals on a larger lot.
People would be required to get a permit for the animals, and getting the permit would require all neighboring property owners to sign off. In addition, the property would have to be fenced and any structures built for the animals would have to be placed at least 25 feet from the lot lines.
The ordinance change would have no bearing on people who live in the towns of Campbell and Burns, which have their own zoning ordinances. Also, any more restrictive subdivision covenants would supersede the county’s zoning, so not all neighborhoods would allow chickens if the zoning amendment gains final approval from the La Crosse County Board.
While rabbits are included in the proposed zoning amendment, no rabbit fans showed up at Monday’s hearing. It was all about the chickens, and the most common comments related to how neighbors wouldn’t even notice the chickens, and to how people living on large lots in rural subdivisions should be allowed to keep more chickens than people can keep on much smaller urban lots.
“It doesn’t make sense to have the same amount of birds as you would in a city lot,” said Gabby Hansen, one of the leading boosters of the chicken amendment.
Heidi Heiring of Onalaska, who brought her small flock of active children with her to the hearing, agreed. “My children make more noise than 10 or 15 chickens,” she said.
Heiring and the other chicken proponents also argued against the requirement that all neighbors have to sign off on the permit. In La Crosse, it was noted, people don’t have to get neighbor approval to start keeping chickens. If there are complaints about their chickens, La Crosse residents have to get signatures representing half their neighbors when they renew their permits.
It seems silly to have to ask neighbors’ permission to keep chickens, Heiring said, when no such permission is required to have dogs.
Hansen and others also argued against the requirement that a chicken coop have to be 25 feet from the lot line, arguing that it should be 25 feet from any neighboring house, which is what the rule is in La Crosse. A dog owner, they noted, could have a kennel next to their garage on the edge of their property, so why not a coop?
It wasn’t entirely a chicken love fest. One couple said they’d had a bad experience with neighbors keeping chickens in their rural subdivision, even though they were prohibited by deed covenants. The neighbors had unsightly coops, they said, one covered in tar paper and the other looking like a metal shack in which you’d keep prisoners of war.
Committee members made no decision on the amendment at Monday’s meeting. They will take the input into account and consider making changes to the proposed zoning amendment at the committee’s April 3 meeting. They might wait another month to vote to allow the county’s legal team to review the new ordinance draft and vote on it in June.
If the full county board approves it at the June meeting, then the 10 towns under countywide zoning have 40 days to respond. If more than half of the town boards pass resolutions opposing the chicken amendment, it would not become official. If towns don’t reject it, people could start legally keeping chickens toward the end of the summer.
La Crosse County’s most famous practitioner of culinary arts won the committee’s approval to expand her home business.
Jennifer Barney, who recently won the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship,” has seen a big surge in business from her notoriety. She’s been running her Meringue Bakery out of her home in the town of Shelby for about 17 months, and she told the committee she’d like to have a shop downtown within a couple years.
Barney said she doesn’t want to make that move without having a solid business plan, so to handle the increased business she asked the county for a conditional-use permit that would allow her to have two full-time employees and up to three part-timers as needed.
Three neighbors expressed concerns about increased traffic and employees, customers or delivery vehicles parking on the narrow town street. To address that concern, the county permit requires that there be no retail sales and that vehicles be parked in Barney’s two driveways or in her yard.
The committee also put a two-year sunset on the permit, which also will require the approval of the full county board.
All but one committee member — Dave Holtze — voted to approve Barney’s permit. “I think this proposal is already a full commercial operation,” he said. “It’s more than a household use.”