JEFFERSON — It’s safe to say that not one of his 29 other new Jefferson County Board colleagues would blame Karl Zarling if he never set foot in the board room again.
Just minutes after being sworn in Tuesday evening, Zarling, who now represents Watertown’s District No. 4, found himself embroiled in a confusing conflict and a marathon county board session.
The board’s chairman, Steve Nass, urged “decorum” even before the meeting began and veteran Supervisor Dick Schultz later called it the most challenging county session he’d ever faced.
All was solved — to the complete satisfaction of few — more than four hours later, when supervisors approved a Joint Development Agreement with We Energies for a massive liquid natural gas storage facility proposed in Ixonia.
Still remaining for the facility to be built is a decision by the county zoning board of adjustment on an appeal of a conditional use permit issued by the county’s zoning and planning committee, and project approval from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.
Supervisors have been struggling with the JDA with We Energies and the Town of Ixonia for the LNG storage facility for months. It appeared again on Tuesday night’s agenda after it was postponed at April’s regular meeting of the board.
Board members were forced Tuesday to confront the matter head-on, however, with Jefferson County Executive Committee Chairwoman Amy Rinard of Ixonia attempting to strengthen the county’s position via three of her own amendments.
To Rinard’s frustration, however — which led to her eventual vote against the JDA — her proposed amendments failed for various reasons. They were either not agreed to by We Energies during negotiations that took place behind closed doors Tuesday night as the meeting progressed in other areas inside the board room, or failed to pass muster with supervisors. The executive committee had recommended the JDA to the board of supervisors, without Rinard’s amendments, by a vote of 4-1.
Rinard’s proposed amendments related to the public’s access to safety and emergency response plans for the proposed plant, reimbursement to property owners who would live near the facility for vegetative buffers, and the times of day when the plant would be accessible to trucks. This last amendment was tied to what Rinard said would be the safety of children attending nearby Ixonia Elementary School as they came to and from the school.
The resolution, as it was approved by the board on a vote of 19-10, with Dwayne Morris of Watertown, absent, stated that the county will now be entering a JDA with We Energies and the Town of Ixonia, “for the construction and operation of a liquefied natural gas facility in the town.” Dissenters in the vote were Mike Kelly, Greg David, Zarling, Rinard, Lloyd Zastrow, Jeff Smith, Anita Martin, Kirk Lund, Laura Payne and Mary Roberts.
The resolution acknowledged We Energies’ desire to construct the large facility that would be capable of “liquefying, storing and vaporizing natural gas for peaking service and associated natural gas pipelines with necessary associated facilities in the Town of Ixonia.”
The PSC has jurisdiction over the proposed project and is in the process of reviewing a petition from Wisconsin Gas, LLC — We Energies — for the facility.
Items addressed in the JDA include emergency response and safety procedures, setbacks from the properties of adjoining landowners, plan review, transportation impact on local roads, drainage impact, vegetation management, noise parameters, land use studies, fiscal impacts and eventual decommissioning.
The executive committee considered the draft JDA at its meeting on March 31 and recommended forwarding it to the county board to authorize County Administrator Ben Wehmeier to enter into the agreement, the resolution stated.
The Town of Ixonia has given its approval to the JDA and construction of the storage tank and facility.
If it is built, the proposed We Energies facility would include a 15-story, 150-foot-diameter tank to store 12 million gallons of liquified natural gas. The plant also would have equipment to process vaporized natural gas into a liquid and back again, a section of pipeline connecting to a main natural gas pipeline, and an electric substation.
Lund, who represents Lake Mills, cited several reasons he would be voting against the JDA. Before the vote, he listed everything from safety and pollution concerns, to the plant being a target for terrorism. Lund also said he wanted to see the world getting away from fossil fuels.
A We Energies representative told the board the plant is necessary, in part, because it will provide fuel that could keep the region’s residents warm in the case of an extremely cold winter. She said a shortfall of natural gas could occur in southeastern Wisconsin as early as 2023 without the LNG facility at Ixonia.
In asking the board to vote against the storage facility, Rinard said she had concerns about its decommissioning.
“Decommissioning will take millions of dollars. This thing will be here in a thousand years,” she said. “We only get one chance to get this right.”
Rinard said the county should use its power to achieve a better agreement for the county and its residents.
“We have real leverage here to negotiate for the health, safety and welfare of the people of Ixonia and Jefferson County,” she said. “I ask that we take another look at this. There is no rush. Don’t buy into this phony sense of urgency. Let’s make this a better document for everybody.”
Schultz said the county has taken many looks at the proposed project and it was time for the board to make a decision.
“We have hard, Wisconsin winters. I understand the arguments, but we have to look to the future,” he said. “I support clean energy, but I have to also support reality.”
Board member Conor Nelan of Fort Atkinson said the county has to take into consideration that what it asks We Energies for in its negotiations over the LNG facility could lead to bad precedents for the company in its other dealings. He implied that if We Energies bends too much for Jefferson County, it might be seen as weak in the future.
Supervisor James Braughler of Watertown said he grew up in a coal mining community and land that was reclaimed after mining was done was some of the most beautiful in his home region. He implied the same could be true in Ixonia after the facility is eventually decommissioned. Braughler also said the track record of natural gas-related facilities is almost flawless in terms of safety.
“We can negotiate and negotiate, and eventually you can’t anymore,” Braughler said, urging a board vote on the issue.
Supervisor Michael Wineke of Watertown sits on the executive committee with Rinard. He also sits next to her in the county board room. Wineke said the executive committee went line by line to make a better joint development agreement.
“This is a contract and a mediation,” he said. “This requires honor and faith (on the parts of the parties involved). We Energies heats my home, so I guess they are sort of my friend. We can’t keep sending our administrator and corporation counsel back (to negotiations) again and again. It’s to the point where we have as good an agreement as we’re gonna get. This codifies the best deal the three parties can achieve.”
With the board’s approval of the JDA Tuesday, following months of input from county board members and the public through meetings of the planning and zoning committee, the executive committee and the county board, Wehmeier is authorized to execute it.
The agreement also states that Wehmeier is permitted to make alterations to the JDA that do not materially affect its terms and conditions, and he will report the changes to the executive committee.
It was noted Tuesday, near the end of the meeting, that Wehmeier will coordinate a town hall style meeting, in which safety plans and emergency response issues for the plant and public will be addressed. A date for that session has yet to be set.
Jefferson County and the Town of Ixonia will no longer be receiving property tax revenue on the land used for operation of the LNG facility, but will receive utility aid from the State of Wisconsin, which is expected to exceed the amount of lost property tax revenue, according to the resolution.
Brendan Conway of We Energies said Wednesday morning that the county board’s approval of the joint development agreement is another important step in making a needed project a reality for the utility’s customers.
“We appreciate all the time and effort spent by the board and county staff in considering this matter,” Conway said. “This facility will allow us to keep customers warm on the coldest days of the year by providing safe, reliable and affordable energy.”
Also Wednesday morning, Rinard said she still believed the amendments she introduced would have made the agreement a little better for people who would live near the proposed industrial facility.