A scenic 10-mile stretch of Wisconsin bluff land would be off-limits to frac-sand mining under a proposed ordinance that has strong local support but must overcome a pro-business climate that has made the Badger State the nation's hottest silica sand-mining range.
If the proposed no-frac-sand zone succeeds in the eclectic Lake Pepin shoreline corridor anchored by the villages of Stockholm and Pepin, it will be rare, if not unprecedented. Wisconsin has approved about 100 frac-sand projects in the past four years — more than any other state — and no Minnesota or Wisconsin county has flatly banned frac-sand mining in an area that covers multiple local jurisdictions.
Supporters and opponents will gather Thursday night in Pepin Township for the proposal's first public hearing.
The rugged, verdant bluff land draws many retirees and day-tripping tourists from the Twin Cities area. "This is an area that lives on tourism and retirement homes," said Bill Mavity, a Pepin County Board supervisor and former Minneapolis police officer who is spearheading the ordinance. "If we can't win on this one, then [the issue] is not winnable."
The town and village boards of Pepin and Stockholm have passed resolutions asking the county to adopt the proposed ordinance, and the chairman of the Wisconsin Mississippi River Parkway Commission has written to support a ban.
Unlike the environmental concerns expressed in many failed frac-sand fights, the argument in the Stockholm-Pepin area is economic.
A study commissioned from two University of Wisconsin-Madison professors by Lake Pepin Partners in Preservation found that frac-sand operations "have the potential to significantly impair property values and tourist activity in Stockholm and Pepin districts."
Mavity said the study's details should matter to the 12 elected supervisors who will decide the issue in the coming months. That's because the area outlined in the proposed ban is a prime economic engine for Wisconsin's smallest county, population 7,390.
Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, said various local units of government in Wisconsin have attempted ordinances over the past several years that would impede sand mining, often wielding bureaucracy, operational parameters or other indirect language. But he said he can't think of another case in the state where a county has tried to explicitly prohibit mining, processing and loading of silica sand in a mapped area combining several towns and villages.
In southeastern Minnesota, at least two individual townships have adopted strictly worded ordinances against frac-sand mining, but nothing similar has come from the county level in Minnesota.
Budinger said that he hasn't seen the Stockholm-Pepin economic study, but that Wisconsin has more than 100 years of experience with industrial sand quarrying that shows "tremendously positive" economic and social gains where mines are built. The benefits of job creation from frac-sand mining, he said, are evident in the nearby Wisconsin communities of Bay City, Hager City and Maiden Rock.
But the Stockholm-Pepin study quoted a real estate agent who said that the mere possibility of frac-sand mining already has damaged the local housing market, where values and unit growth were the highest of any sector in the county from 2000 to 2010.
The study links the prosperity to the area's natural, scenic endowments. Those same amenities have helped create the equivalent of about 50 full-time tourism jobs in the area — about half of all tourism jobs in Pepin County, the study said.
"For these particular communities, the costs of local frac-sand activity may exceed the benefits in both the short and long run," the study said.
A peaceful, scenic haven
The proposed protected zone would extend from the waterfront to the top of the area's towering limestone bluffs from the Pierce-Pepin county line, south to the far side of the town of Pepin, the birthplace of classic children's book author Laura Ingalls Wilder. The views extend over the widest naturally occurring section of the Mississippi and quaint neighborhoods that support a thriving community of artists and retirees. Motorcyclists flock there on summer weekends via the twisting Great River Road, and docks support a vibrant boating and fishing scene.
The study's authors reviewed existing empirical research to conclude that sand mining could shock the area's tourism-based economy with "disamenities" such as noise, heavy truck traffic, increased rail loading and air pollution. They likened it to visitor drop-offs in beach communities where there's been an oil spill.
Mavity said he expects the industry to fight the proposed ordinance. In Minnesota, where the frac-sand industry recently defeated major controls proposed at the Legislature, mining lobbyists fought regulations even when the companies they represented weren't directly targeted by the proposed changes.