Wednesday, July 30th, 2008
By Shelley Grieshop
Group to fight E. Jefferson Twp. zoning change
Some signatures already have been collected to block a zoning amendment passed by Mercer County commissioners on Tuesday that ultimately could expedite plans to build an ethanol plant near Celina.
Commissioners unanimously voted to raise the current zoning height restriction for East Jefferson Township's industrial district from 45 to 125 feet. The action is to take effect in 30 days.
The zoning change would help Mercer Energy move along plans to build a proposed $125 million ethanol plant east of Celina near state Route 29. Company plans currently show its tallest structure at 94 feet.
A group of concerned citizens, mostly East Jefferson Township residents, hope to get the necessary 54 signatures they need to file a referendum with the local board of elections to block the zoning change, representatives told The Daily Standard.
The group, represented by local attorney John Moul, has until Aug. 21 to file the necessary paperwork to get the issue placed on the November ballot for East Jefferson Township voters. If the group misses that deadline, the issue would have to wait for the next election, according to county Prosecuting Attorney Andy Hinders, who is still looking into the matter.
Several residents filed a lawsuit earlier this year against Mercer Energy to reverse the height variance the company received in December to build structures up to 150 feet. The civil lawsuit claimed the variance was granted in a shroud of misconduct by the Mercer County Regional Planning Commission.
"These people were clearly asked (at the meeting) if they had an interest in the ethanol plant and they said they didn't have to answer," said Barb Dabbelt, an East Jefferson Township resident who attended the meeting.
Upon hearing about the zoning change, Dabbelt said she is disappointed the commissioners are not listening to their constituents. She said residents in the area worry about degrading property values and damage to the environment, particularly the already polluted lake. "I'm a real estate person and I have to be frank about the water quality in Celina when I talk to clients," she said, adding how it scares people to learn the city's water supply comes from the "murky" lake and has chemicals that can cause cancer and other illnesses.
Dabbelt fears the water quality will worsen if big industry moves nearby and said the "people in power" simply aren't listening to their concerns.
"Our democracy is built with safeguards and they're skirting them," she said. "They're stepping on the little people."
When asked if she's also concerned about the slow growth of industry in the area, Dabbelt suggested locating such operations in the northern portion of the county where population isn't as dense.
Ryan Schwieterman, president of Mercer Energy, said he supports the commissioners' decision not only for the boost it gives his own business but for other potential companies to that area. He said he knows of several - including a Japanese automotive company - that turned away due to the height restrictions and other issues in the township.
Schwieterman said the pending lawsuit against him is not moot following the commissioner's ruling Tuesday because Mercer Energy is still seeking a variance of 150 feet - 25 feet above what commissioners approved. The company's tallest proposed structure is 94 feet, but Schwieterman said he wants to insure his right to build higher in the future.
"We will continue to fight that appeal," he said.
Schwieterman commented on the allegation that the ethanol industry is failing and addressed residents' concerns about the plant being abandoned down the road. He said the plant will be a corn processing facility, not an ethanol facility, he said. Ethanol is only one of five or six revenue sources Mercer Energy is exploring, he added.
Schwieterman said one of the company's plans is to use an extraction process to create corn oil as a cooking oil product for the human food grade market. He said the company is currently not releasing the details of their alternate plans.
According to the company, the plant will employ 50 full-time workers and generate nearly $3 million annually in local tax revenue.
Commissioner Bob Nuding said the three commissioners represent all of Mercer County, not just the residents in East Jefferson Township and have to make decisions based on the welfare of everyone.
He noted the advantages the entire county will reap as it becomes more enticing to manufacturing companies. Multi-million dollar investments will help subsidize local schools and lower taxes for individual citizens, he said.
"It will also help lower the costs for new sewer systems," he said, adding industry will pay the majority expenses based on flow volume.
The local area currently has very few big industries that employ large numbers of workers, he said. He fears that any one of those could pack up and leave like Huffy's did 10 years ago and "we could quickly become a ghost town," he said.
When discussing the possibility of the referendum being filed in opposition, Nuding replied: "It's a good thing in the end, so this has a chance to play out in a democratic process."
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