Watson says he won't mine gravel for Interstate expansion

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Neil Johnson
Tuesday, February 18, 2014

MILTON— Landowner Bill Watson won't rule out gravel pits as a potential part of a 1,500-acre industrial development he plans west of Milton, but he said he doesn't plan to supply aggregate for the Interstate 90/39 expansion.

In a meeting with The Gazette editorial board Tuesday, Watson sought to quell rumors he has an ulterior motive to rezone farmland he owns west of Milton so he could immediately mine the land for sand and gravel and sell it for upcoming highway projects.

Watson told the editorial board he has drafted a letter that says he won't dig gravel pits to sell aggregate to the state for the Interstate 90/39 expansion project, which is set to begin in 2016.

“Absolutely not. I'll absolutely guarantee that,” Watson said. “I've given a letter, and I'll give a letter to anybody that I'm not going to sell to the Interstate system.”

 Yet the California resident who owns Janesville-based Mulder Dairy Farms said he's hesitant to make zoning agreements that would bar gravel pits in his proposed Evermor development.

Zoning that allows sand and gravel mining would be an “asset” and a “valuable tool for investment bankers” who would invest in his plans to build out large-scale industrial facilities, shipping warehouses and intermodal freight hubs west of Milton, he said.

Any gravel mining would be 30 years from now, and mining gravel now “wouldn't make economic sense,” he said. Even so, he wouldn't be comfortable with zoning that shuts the door on gravel mining, he said.

“If you have that zoned for aggregate, then you have a very valuable tool with investment bankers that I can use to build a project like this. Bankers can look at that as a way they can get bailed out if your project doesn't work,” Watson said. “If you say you're never going to do it, you've just wiped out the value of the asset.”

It's a mixed message that's gotten residents worried. The land runs adjacent to at least a dozen farms and residences.

Watson estimated the land has at least 700 million tons of sand and gravel underneath it.

In recent weeks, he has said gravel prices are below a threshold he considers profitable, and he estimates it could be another 30 years before it could be profitable to dig gravel from the land.

Milton Mayor Brett Frazier has said he doesn't want any gravel pits developed on land annexed into the city of Milton. In the city of Milton, industrial zoning designations allow for gravel pits.

Watson has not yet requested annexation, and none of the land is in the city. Much of it falls outside of a 1.5-mile area in which the city holds an extraterritorial agreement on land use.

Watson said Tuesday that some town of Milton and town of Fulton officials have said they wouldn't oppose gravel mining on Watson's land. 

“The townships don't care what I put on it,” Watson said. “The townships wanted to get a royalty on the property on the mining if it went in, but they didn't care if we mined it.”

Watson said an agreement to pay mining royalties wouldn't make any sense with the current value of gravel.

“Profits are made in pennies on the aggregate business,” he said.

Fulton Town Chairman Evan Sayre said Tuesday the town's stance is not that cut and dried, and no one in the town of Fulton has rubber stamped the idea of gravel pits.

“The only thing you could say about Fulton or any township is they'd have to take a long, hard look at any mine, whether you do it and how you handle reclamation and even revenue. It's the kind of thing that's going to change permanently the look and the structure of a township,” Sayre said.

“Milton could wind up being just a little mushroom sitting on top of a 50-foot hole around it,” he said.

Some city of Milton and town of Fulton officials have said they'd push for zoning and developer agreements that would prohibit gravel pits as part of the Evermor development.

The city of Milton has not received an annexation petition, specific project plans or re-zoning requests from Watson, and he's only supplied what he calls “generic” drawings that show the footprint of buildings he'd develop in several hundred acres adjacent to an area where Watson is proposing an interchange at County M and I-90/39.

Watson said Tuesday he's still negotiating with landowner Kerry Hull, who owns land adjacent to the proposed Evermor development area along the south end of Milton.

He's asking Hull, who is a Fulton Town Board member, to enter the annexation petition because he says Hull's land would link the development area directly to Milton city limits.

At the same time, Watson has only completed a portion of the work on an Interstate justification report he's required to submit to the state and federal government for approval of the interchange he's proposing.

If Watson seeks to get the interchange approved, it could need to happen soon. The state is within months of finalizing designs for the Interstate expansion, which would include any new interchanges.

Watson's pushing for a “diamond” interchange at the location, which he said could be put in either before or during the Interstate expansion and be made to fit the Interstate's future six-lane layout. 

Meanwhile, Watson's waiting to learn whether the towns of Milton and Fulton and the city of Milton will strike an intergovernmental agreement over zoning and taxing authority for his project.

Officials from the local municipalities have indicated they're waiting to hear more details on Watson's plans before they begin to have serious talks on tax revenue sharing or potential zoning of the property.

Watson has said he won't seek municipal incentives for infrastructure for his project and that he'd bankroll the plan, including infrastructure within the industrial area.

Last updated: 6:10 pm Tuesday, February 18, 2014

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