Janesville City Council vote stunned’ mine owner
Eric Gilbert had asked the city to annex and rezone property on the south side so he could open the mine. The council was set to introduce the item and forward it to the plan commission.
But on a 6-1 vote, members declined, something that those familiar with council history do not remember happening before.
“The whole reason city councils and town boards have planning commissions is so, when they have the public hearings, they can discuss things at a more in-depth level,” Gilbert said Thursday.
Gilbert said he was shocked when the council treated the introduction as a public hearing, and he said he was surprised when he heard a council member cite incorrect information in making his decision.
Council member Russ Steeber said the town of La Prairie turned down the mine twice.
Rather, town officials took mine owners to court because officials believed it was operating contrary to an ordinance passed in 1977. A judge found in the town’s favor and shut down the mine in 2007.
Gilbert said the company bought the property in 2002 on information from the owner that it had operated continuously since before the ordinance was passed, grandfathering the operation.
Steeber, who made the motion to reject the introduction, stands by his vote and said part of his decision was based on sensitivity to the town.
Saying that his statements were inaccurate is “splitting hairs,” Steeber said. The town didn’t want mining, which is why they passed the ordinance and took the owners to court, Steeber said Thursday. “They didn’t want to have the land that’s good farmland tore up.”
The city council has rarely been credited with being sensitive to the wishes of surrounding towns. In fact, Steeber recently led a successful effort to include an urban reserve area in the city’s comprehensive plan, something many town officials criticized, calling it a “land grab.”
Steeber said annexing the land for the mine would have been a waste of time if the council later rejected the mine proposal.
“The council basically thought that was not the type of land use (it) wanted for any reason,” Steeber said.
When asked if he would never vote to annex the property, Steeber said: “No. I’d have to look at what the use was going to be. If it was developed into housing, maybe.”
The council has not rejected a requested annexation in recent memory.
Steeber said he had enough information to make the decision, and he considered the wishes of the neighbors.
“Regardless of what the scientific data (shows), I think the council just felt this was not the proper use of land for a city.”
Steeber said he didn’t see the jobs created as being that important.
“It would have been nice to have 20 more jobs in the area,” he said but added that the economic impact would have been marginal.
Gilbert believes the council made its decision based on bad information. Neighbors have a right to be concerned, but he believes he could have allayed those concerns.
Council members also talked about wasting staff time if the proposal had been introduced. Gilbert said he’s been working with the planning department for more than a year and that the proposal is nearly done.
During that time, Gilbert said he agreed to insulate property owners, build retention ponds to stop flooding in the nearby State Street neighborhood and preserve the natural landscape.
They area is zoned industrial and multi-family housing, so he believes his operation creates a buffer more natural than a factory.
Gilbert said he doesn’t have a “Plan B” for the land.
“I was so stunned Monday night,” Gilbert said.
“Normally, you have a chance to go through the different problems,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re successful in every case. At least we go through and have some kind of a fair shake.”