Gretchen lifted her gaze from the newspaper and directed it at me across her breakfast toast.
I could see she was in her discovery mode since the page open on the table next to her plate contained the “legals.” I was about to learn something she had found in the small print.
Gretchen has been a fan of the public legal notices since we got into the business of owning newspapers in Wisconsin nearly 44 years ago. The book we bought about how to run a weekly newspaper advised us that we should pay careful attention to the legal notices both to know more about the community and its issues and because the legals were a steady source of income.
Newspapers are paid a state-regulated fee to publish the notices to honor the public’s right to know about how public business is managed.
Back then, in the pre-digital age, the legals came to us from the municipal clerks as paper documents that we then had to typeset and then proof and proof again to ensure accuracy. In addition to dealing with the numbers of property descriptions and the legalese, the frequent contact with municipal clerks often produced leads to stories, which Gretchen would pass along to her editor, business partner and spouse, aka me.
Her interest in legals, first in Lodi, where we owned our first paper and later in Onalaska and Holmen for a dozen years, has never flagged, now for what she learns at the breakfast table about people, business and public projects in the region.
So why, she began, putting down her toast, is the county approving the expansion of a dairy operation on Brice Prairie just at the time there is such concern about animal manure contributing to nitrate in drinking water in the towns of Onalaska and Holland?
She was referring to a legal notice of an application for an amendment to a conditional use permit for Morning Star Dairy on County Rd ZZ, which, she read, “applies for a livestock facility siting expansion including increasing the number of Animal Units (AU) approved in Conditional Use Permit No. 745 from 895 AU to 939 AU; raze two existing barns to be replaced by a proposed barn, parlor, holding area, and breezeway additions to existing barns; construct a sand separation building and install separation equipment; and, construct a 281-ft x 285-ft 5,083,070 gallon concrete waste storage facility on property zoned General Agriculture District.”
Her question stemmed from another public document: A report from a county task force formed two years ago to study the nitrate contamination issue and how the county could reduce the number of residents exposed to nitrate contamination in well water.
The study began after a legislative audit in 2016 revealed that the county’s only CAFO, Babcock Genetics, a swine operation in the town of Holland, had for years been exceeding nitrate standards based on monitoring well reports. The county has been pressing the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources not to renew the CAFO’s permit without additional performance requirements.
Public interest in the subject has prompted The Sustainable La Crosse Commission to hold a public information program on water quality at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the basement auditorium of the La Crosse County Administration Center, 212 6th St. N, La Crosse.
So why the expansion of animal units on the prairie? Gretchen asked again.
Good question, I had to admit. So I called Nate Sampson, director of La Crosse County Planning and Zoning.
He said that the county board had approved the conditional use amendment for the dairy. It was a modest increase in animal units, made necessary by the engineering plans that were for an improvement in the manure management capability of the operation.
The water issue is just one example of what’s to be learned from the legals at the breakfast table — questions that remain unanswered such as the reason a property with a big price tag has changed hands in the neighborhood or why someone has lost to public auction the contents of a storage unit.
But there are other notices that are immediately useful, such as school board and city council meeting agendas.
It’s all there in the legals — daily fare as regular as coffee and toast at our house thanks to the newspaper’s role in the public’s right to know what’s going on.
My only wish is for the newspapers to spotlight a legal when it has a particular relevance to an important public issue. For example, I would have missed the dairy expansion notice if it weren’t for Gretchen’s curiosity.