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Frac Sand Annexation Puts Communities At Odds In Western Wisconsin

Legal Challenge Settled But Opposition Remains

carol mitchell(CC-BY-NC-ND)

Over the past four years, frac sand companies in Trempealeau County have begun using an obscure, legal maneuver called annexation to avoid strict county regulations. By convincing cities to stretch their boundaries around mines, companies can work directly with the city officials rewriting the rules. But a lawsuit brought by two towns could have a chilling effect on future frac sand annexations.

Five frac sand companies have had their properties annexed by nearby cities in Trempealeau County. By convincing city councils to wrap their borders around the mines, companies get a new set of rules, often letting them process and ship sand non-stop, something the county doesn’t allow.

Trempealeau County Land Management Director Kevin Lein said the county relaxed certain regulations but the annexations kept coming.

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“I think they’ve felt the easiest route is annexation and it’s kind of become a pay for play scenario that if you’re willing to pay enough money, you’re going to be able to play in the game,” Lein said.

Last spring, Texas-based Superior Silica Sands offered the City of Independence 15 cents per ton of finished sand if they annexed a proposed 550 acre mine. That could work out to more than $100,000 per year for a city of 1,300 people. Mayor Robert Baecker says that could fix roads and other infrastructure.

“It would help us make those improvements, you could make improvements in the city and not put any tax burden on the taxpayers and revitalize the town a little bit,” he said.

But there’s a catch. The proposed mine is more than a mile and a half from the city and to stretch their boundary that far Independence needed to annex a strip of land through the towns of Burnside and Lincoln.

In most cases, towns can’t challenge an annexation but, in 2012, a new law allowed them to ask for a review by the state Department of Administration. If the DOA says an annexation appears noncontiguous, meaning the property doesn’t touch the city, towns can sue to overturn it.

Lincoln Town Board Chair Jack Speerstra said he asked Independence officials to reconsider before contacting the state.

“We warned them that this is what we were going to do and they said, ‘Ok, go ahead.’ And the DOA said that we probably have a case against them in terms of illegal, incontiguous annexation,” said Speerstra.

This opened the door for Lincoln and Burnside to sue and after weeks of deliberations they went to court. But lawsuits can be expensive and Speerstra said Superior Silica is paying legal fees for the City of Independence.

“You have Independence making decisions knowing that it’s not going to cost them anything and we’re making decisions knowing that we could full well pay our full share and if we lose, pay their full share,” he said.

Speerstra said he’s not against sand mining. His issue is that residents living next to the proposed mine wouldn’t have any say over how it’s regulated by the city. That’s something Bill Sylla can relate to. He lives next to a frac sand mine that was annexed by another city.

“You try to say something to the city and they’re like, ‘Well, you’re not in the city, so we won’t do nothing for you,’” Sylla said. “You try to say something to the township or the county and they’re like, ‘Well … that’s in the city and there’s nothing we can do for you.’”

Sylla now lives with bright lights at night and a constant rumbling he can feel in his bed. He said he has been following the lawsuit between the towns and the city. He hopes it sets an example.

“If the two townships can beat that annexation then if they wanted to keep mining there they would have to follow the county rules,” Sylla said. “And then, that might set precedent for other mining companies trying to come.”

Last week Burnside and Lincoln signed an agreement to drop the lawsuit if the City of Independence stops future mine annexations for 20 years. Despite the settlement, a group of citizens living near the site have vowed to keep fighting to overturn the annexation of the proposed Superior Silica Sands Mine.

The company didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story.

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