An editor’s note: This guest column was produced as an open letter to the Winona City Council and is being published for its significance and relation to sand mining in Houston County and elsewhere in southeast Minnesota where citizens, landowners and local governments are trying to come to equitable solutions to this significant situation.
Dear Winona City Council and Mayor Miller:
At your meeting on Oct. 15 the city council is scheduled to approve an agreement with Biesanz Stone Company that would allow it to continue blasting for frac sand near Knopp Valley and WE Valley.
But before that agreement is discussed or voted upon, there are important questions from citizens that need to be answered. These questions have been asked of the Winona City Council, administration and staff since December of 2011 but have never been publicly addressed.
This letter is from Winona Area Citizens Concerned About Silica Mining (CASM) and is asking you – the city council – to please finally address and answer those questions, which we enumerate below, before you act.
After a year of putting us off, Winona City Attorney Christopher Hood finally did reply.
His answer? The City of Winona “has no obligation to respond to such questions from CASM.” So we now must repeat, once again, our questions – this time in an open letter.
We’re asking you, members of the city council, to be accountable. Please answer the following questions in a public forum without further delay:
1. The term “grandfathered in” has been used to describe why the Biesanz Stone Co. is exempt from the terms of city ordinances and specifically exempt from the city’s own frac sand moratorium. (The new owners of Biesanz last year blasted and stockpiled the quarry’s limestone so that it could begin mining frac sand. This blasting disrupted and angered neighbors in Knopp and WE Valleys.) What is the legal basis for the conclusion that Biesanz is “grandfathered in” with respect to city ordinances? Has Biesanz been operating illegally (without a permit) for over a year? And if not, please explain your legal basis for that judgment.
2. What is the legal rationale for allowing Biesanz to expand its operations – when Winona’s moratorium on new or expanded operations prohibits such expansion?
3. What was the legal basis for exempting Winona’s new commercial port from the restrictions of the city’s own moratorium?
4. Concerning the June 4, 2012, city council public hearing on frac sand: What was the legal basis for not following the procedures set forth in the city code for public hearings?
5. What was the legal rationale for telling the citizens of Winona, prior to that hearing, they were not free to meet with members of the city council to discuss the citizen’s appeal of the commercial port decision?
Council members: We have repeatedly, and in public, asked these questions of you since last year and have received answers to none of them.
(a) We ask that the city council respect its Winona constituents and postpone discussing or voting on a new agreement with Biesanz until you have first answered the above questions.
(b) Winona City Attorney Christopher Hood told one of our members on Sept. 28, “I don’t know if the council has been told these rationales. . . . most of this is in staff reports.” He then told us he and the city owed us no response to our questions and recommended we try and find the answers through the Minnesota Data Practices Act – which we are making a good-faith effort to do.
(c) We ask that the city council direct city staff to post its answers to our questions on the city’s website, viewable by all members of the public.
(d) We further ask that the city council hold a public forum, with staff and council members present, to answer these questions and explain to the people of Winona what the city has done and why. This can allow the city to be what it claims to be: open and transparent.
Jim Gurley, for Winona Area Citizens Concerned About Silica Mining (CASM)