Sand mine bill up for revisions in Wisconsin

December 10, 2013

A bill that would rewrite regulations for sand mines in Wisconsin is up for an overhaul after worries were raised that communities would lose some of their authority to enforce local ordinances.

The Journal Sentinel reported that the legislation emerged Oct. 16 as Republicans showed an eagerness to help the industry that has argued that restrictions set by local authorities have become to stringent. The bill sought to rein in those powers and protect the critical industry.

The bill drew strong opposition from Democrats, local officials and conservation groups, and key legislators have been meeting with local government groups in the hope of striking a compromise.

"Without a doubt, under the heading of local control, there will be more authority given to local governments" in the next version of the bill compared to the current one, said Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst), a co-sponsor of the bill.

At its heart, the bill would limit the power of a 2012 state Supreme Court decision that said towns could regulate sand mining operations with their zoning ordinances and their general police powers. Police powers are those that govern health, safety and welfare.

The issue is sensitive because many towns do not have zoning authority, and the high court decision found that such towns still have the power to regulate sand mines.

"It's not easy to take back something that has been given," Tiffany said. "There are a significant number of unzoned towns. We're trying to find a way to strike a middle ground on that issue. It's not easy to get there."

While opponents have raised issues about local control, Tiffany said he was trying to prevent situations in which local authorities change rules that could shut down sand mining operations overnight.

The Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association is supportive of the bill because some members of the road building group operate mines to get aggregate rock for highways. Some of those long-running operations are facing new regulations as local governments put rules in place for sand mines, the group's executive director, Pat Goss told the Journal Sentinel.

"Police powers should not be used to zone," Goss said. "We have zoning rules for very specific reasons, so developers know whether it's even feasible for their development to go forward."

The legislation also would restrict efforts by some local units to regulate air and water pollution because both are regulated by the state Department of Natural Resources.

The sand industry has boomed from five sand mines and five processing plants in 2010 to more than 115 licensed sand mining operations, according to figures released in June by the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commissions.

Western Wisconsin's geology has produced vast quantities of sand perfectly suited for hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," where a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is used at high pressure to extract hard-to-reach reserves.

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