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Digester in Lind denied

Ron Brooks addressed the Lind Town Board during the public hearing about a proposed co-digester. The board voted against the re-zoning and amending the comprehensive plan needed for the plan to move forward. James Card Photo

Town board votes no

By James Card

The Lind Town Board voted against making amendments to the town’s zoning code and comprehensive plan to change 7.8 acres of agricultural land for ndustrial-intensive use.

The 7.8 acres would be home to a co-digester on the Brooks Farms that would turn manure and food waste into biogas, tea water for field fertilization and a solid-form fertilizer. Vanguard Renewables is their partner in this project.

“My concerns are aligned a lot with many of the concerns of the citizen in the town of Lind,” said Chair Kathy Nickel.

She cited truck traffic on County Trunk A, possible future expansion of the dairy herd and thus, expansion of the operation of the facility, and the potential for the project to fail and be abandoned as her concerns.

“What is to stop that site from being sold off for any other type of industrial-level facility to be taken over there,” she said Feb. 28 at the Waupaca High School auditorium.

“There are a lot of tax credits, government money and incentives to put in these digesters. But what happens when the digester breaks down? The money is not there for the repairs. I talked with two separate owners of digesters that are no longer functioning. That was the statement I received from them,” added Nickel.

She also addressed flare-offs. The gas must meet a certain standard to be transferred into the pipeline. Nickel said many of these digesters do not produced to that standard and the gas needs to be burned off. The hazmat emergency response was another concern.

“I think changing this zoning and land use leaves us an island of industrial zoning in the middle of our township and we’re setting a precedent that would open us up to do that in other locations. That’s not what our plan says what we want done with our land use out there,” said Nickel.

Town supervisor Cindy Hardy said she agreed with what Nickel expressed. The two of them voted to “recommend denial” to change the zoning and that was enough to make the decision formal.

Town Supervisor Zoey Nelson recused herself from the proceedings as she is the daughter of Ron Brooks and it would be a conflict of interest.

Town supervisor Ken Barrows did not say anything during the hearing.

The forum

On the sign-in sheets located at both entrances of the auditorium, 238 people signed their names. There were two columns at the end of the signature line: one column if a person supported the digester and another column for those that opposed the digester. The X marks in the opposed column greatly outnumbered the X marks in the support column.

More people attended the meeting remotely via Zoom – an average of 70 as people dropped out, or reconnected throughout the evening. Town Clerk Faye Neumann clicked away on the hosting platform to insure remote attendees were included.

Richard Carlson, the town attorney, apprised the crowd of legal aspects to keep in mind during the hearing.

“The hearing is intended to inform the town board of the pros and cons of the proposed re-zoning and to get the barometer—so to speak—the wishes of the town residents. It is not an exercise of simple counting hands of how may support his re-zoning or how many of you oppose it,” he said.

Carlson then read a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision regarding re-zoning to help frame the issue.

“So this is not a hand-raising endeavor, it is more less a fact-finding endeavor,” he said.

Carlson said the final decision would go onto the Waupaca County Board, however; the decision of the town board is important for the county board to make their decision.

The floor was opened to debate. The proponents of the digester, Brooks Farms and Vanguard Renewables, would have time to state their facts and arguments, and then the opponents would have a chance to do the same.

After that, the public was welcome to approach the podium and state their concerns. Proponents then had an opportunity for rebuttal.

The hearing started at 5 p.m. and finished at 9:45 p.m.

Public debates

There were two common themes mentioned by many speakers. The first was a feeling of community spirit in the air – on both sides – in that the people of Lind cared so much about the well being of their township and their neighbors that they turned out in great numbers and were able to speak their mind in a public forum.

The second often-mentioned comments were the high standards at Brooks Farms. Many people spoke of the cleanliness of the farm, the top-notch technology, the treatment of the cows and the integrity of their farming methods.

Neighbors, fellow farmers, contractors and others all attested that Brooks Farm is a first-class dairy operation.

Besides those common themes, the evening of debate took many turns. It was a mix of verifiable facts, hard-to-verify facts, impartial background information, personal anecdotes, pseudo-science commentary, the airing of existential anxieties, grumpy rants, I-read-this-on-the-internet testimony and odes to the beauty of Lind.

Each speaker at the podium was filmed by a notebook computer which was connected to a massive screen display. On the screen was the speaker addressing the board and in a sidebar was a running list of people viewing the meeting remotely. Some people sitting in the audience were visible on the screen.

Lind resident George Drivas sat in the front row. As Kevin Chase, the co-founder of Vanguard Renewables made his opening remarks, Drivas raised his hands making a thumbs-down gesture. Carlson, the town attorney, asked him to stop.

After a brief respite and a few speakers later, Drivas started the thumbs-down gesturing again and Carlson signaled for a deputy sheriff to escort Drivas from the auditorium. He left peacefully.

Pros and cons

Dan O’ Callaghan, a land-use attorney, explained the legal nuances to the board. Chad Zuelleger, director of government affairs of the Dairy Business Association, offered his support for the digester, and so did Bryan Sievers, a farmer from eastern Iowa.

Bernard Sheff, an engineer and chair of the American Biogas Council, pointed out that Europe is way ahead of the U.S. in adopting this technology. He also pointed out that this was a national security issue.

“I think we all understand the fact of having someone local making fertilizer is so important. Look what the war in Ukraine has done to the world fertilizer market,” Sheff said.

“We have all witnessed many farms and businesses failing and having to sell, how can we not support a family-owned business to they can keep their doors open and be profitable now and in the future? This family is working to keep their 160-year legacy moving forward for the future of their business and their families by utilizing the land they own, along with the byproducts of their dairy by recycling their own manure. By doing so, Brooks Farms will reduce their reliance on conventional fertilizer – which I sell – while reducing run-off risk but not spreading raw manure,” said Kris Tesser, an agronomy expert.

The best laugh of the night came from Bob Halaska, the former owner of the Everclean Dry Cleaning plant. He cited his experience being heavily scrutinized by the EPA, OSHA, the DNR and other regulatory bodies.

“We should all feel confident in the fact that our government will watch over us,” Halaska said as the audience broke out into laughter. He pointed out that Wisconsin lost the top spot as a dairy producer to California and the state could retake that title if it were proactive with this kind of technology. He also said that everyone has digesters in the form of septic tanks and nobody pays too much attention to what goes into it, whereas Brooks/Vanguard must monitor their digester in great detail.

As for opponents of the digester, Lori Knutson and Cynthia Cindric led off with opening statements that made an umbrella argument with multiple points against the digester. Greg Nowak of Appleton, read a letter from an engineer in Kewaunee with has extensive experience with digesters that urged the board to deny the re-zoning. Many other citizens spoke about air and water quality concerns, PFAS, property values, digester horror stories in other locales, concern for nearby Walla Walla Creek, the concept of “spot zoning” and more interpretations to the comprehensive plan.

Dick Swanson of Algoma made a passionate plea. Kewaunee County has experienced groundwater problems with manure exposure.

“They don’t have enough money to fix the aquifer,” Swanson said.

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