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Friday, January 18th, 2008

Ethanol plant zoning granted

By Janie Southard

East Jefferson Township board of zoning appeals chairman Jonny Dicke, left, cond. . .

East Jefferson Township board of zoning appeals has granted the height variance request that gives the final go-ahead to the construction of Mercer County's first ethanol plant.
Following a recess called by board chairman Jonny Dicke, the board on Thursday voted 3-2 to approve the height variance at the site off state Route 29 purchased by Mercer Energy for construction of the $150 million ethanol plant. Three buildings, the tallest of which is 94 feet, will exceed the 45-foot height cap in East Jefferson Township.
"We are extremely pleased the vote has gone in our favor. We will continue forward," said Mercer Energy CEO Ryan Schwieterman, adding construction will begin in the spring and is expected to take 18 months.
He also announced that two "highly experienced" people have been hired for the two top spots at the new plant: vice president of operations, who has 18 years of experience with ethanol production, and plant manager, with five years experience managing an ethanol plant. He declined to announce their names until they are officially on the payroll.
After the vote Thursday, Dicke said he's glad it's over.
"I guess I wish we'd get paid more for this job," he quipped on behalf of the five-person zoning appeals board and two alternates who are all volunteers.
Dicke announced at the December appeals meeting that he would abstain from the vote.
"My farm is directly across the street from where this plant will be in an industrial zone, which may be good. But if this plant goes belly up, then I'll be living next to a white goose," he said alluding to Celina's ill-fated power plant known as the blue goose.
The vote of the board was: Dicke, abstain; Don Vanderhorst, yes; Jay Frysinger, yes; alternate Dave Knous, yes; Larry Hawk, no; and alternate Jim Schneible, no. Board member Joe Pecharich was absent. At a past meeting, members were asked if they were investors in the plant and all responded they had no current investment, except for Frysinger who refused more than once to answer the question.
The approximately 50-person audience expressed displeasure when the board voted to disallow public comment, and again when the board took recess to discuss the variance approval motion already on the floor.
Mercer County Prosecutor Andy Hinders, who also is the board of appeals' attorney, explained the legalities of a recess and how it fits with the Open Meetings law, which would not permit any public body to discuss matters of this nature in private.
"The Supreme Court of Ohio has twice ruled that any public board that exercises 'quasi judicial power' - for example can call witnesses and make value judgments - may deliberate in closed session, but decisions must be announced in public," Hinders explained.
Construction of the ethanol plant now can move forward as the plant has its height variance and EPA permits for air pollution control and wastewater. A local group that appealed the EPA permits recently withdrew their appeal, due to its attorney no longer being able to represent the case. The group's main concern was the plant's wastewater being dumped into Grand Lake.
Mercer Energy, the group of local farmers and investors building the plant, have said the plant will use a HydroMilling system to convert corn into ethanol and livestock feed byproducts. The plant will be built at 7064 Four Turkey Road, between Celina and St. Marys.

By the numbers:
• Mercer Energy plans to employ 50 full-time employees with a median annual salary of $60,403. In comparison, other median incomes include: Celina, $36,300; St. Marys, $38,900; statewide, $43,493.
• The $150 million facility will process 19 million bushels of corn into 50 million gallons of ethanol annually, which translates to a projected annual tax revenue of $2.925 million.
• Spin-off jobs during the 18-month construction period are expected to be about 300 for an estimated payroll of up to $25 million.
• The plant's EPA permit requires air emissions of less than 98 tons per year. Currently the estimated 2,000 automobiles in Mercer County release 12,000 tons of emissions annually.
• Noise level anticipated at the plant's fence line is 70-75 decibels - about the same as a dishwasher and far less than a leaf blower.
• The plant design includes an underground fire protection water-loop system, i.e., a series of fire hydrants circling the facility and linked to a water supply tank.
- Information provided by Mercer Energy
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