County citizens group opens dialog with supervisors over Freeport land sale issue

By Zach Jensen,

A grassroots movement, known as “Winneshiek County Citizens for Good Government”, approached the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors during Monday’s regular meeting to discuss the much-debated possible future sale of a piece of county land in Freeport that provides flood mitigation.

Kristin Erickson represented the group during the meeting, at which time she read aloud a letter to the supervisors regarding the potential sale of the seven-acre Freeport property.

“What is the anticipated dollar amount from the sale of this land?” Erickson asked the supervisors, to which they responded by explaining that they could not disclose that information, because it would affect the bidding process.

Erickson read several more questions from her letter before saying, “It’s a little difficult to figure out what the benefit to the county is.”

“All we’re doing is trying to make a company [happy] out there — wanting to be more green by putting in solar panels,” replied Supervisors Co-Chair Mark Vick. “They came to us. We didn’t go to them.”

Vick was presumably referring to Iowa Rotocast Plastics, Inc. (IRP), which owns property aligning the seven county acres up for sale. During prior Board of Supervisors meetings in 2023, the parcel was referred to as the “IRP property”. 

“… well, you can’t just sell it to them,” Erickson said. “You gotta open it up to the public.”

“Anybody can buy it,” Vick replied. “You can buy it, if you want. Anyone sitting here can buy it.”

Erickson said the purpose of the deep-rooted native grasses, which, she said later in the meeting were planted in 2018 or 2019, is to mitigate the water, but Vick said those grasses can only soak up so much. 

“That water, in that kind of soil type out there, seeps down through that sand,” Vick said. “If you want to change that, you’ve got to put a clay basin in there to hold that water, so it doesn’t seep through that sand.”

“This is so good,” Erickson said with a smile — in reference to her dialog with the supervisors. “This is the first time we’ve had a conversation about what you guys are thinking. I’ve been to boards where they present what they want to do, rather than say ‘This is what we’re gonna do’ and then people hear about it and go ‘What?’. So, it might be better if the three of you, when you come up with ideas of things to do, {…} and present that in a way that we would know what you’re thinking.”

As friendly as those comments may have sounded to Erickson, they didn’t seem to have been so well received by their intended audience.

“I’m getting tired of hearing ‘the three of us’ all the time,” Vick said. “There’s five of us at the board, and they vote three to two, so that’s the way it goes. Last time, two years ago, it was three to two. Me and Dan sat here how many times, and we didn’t go causing a big scene.”

“And, actually, we didn’t come up with the idea,” added Supervisors Chair Dan Langreck. “They came to us.”

“How much land, do you think, drains into that dry run?” Supervisor Steve Kelsay asked. “It goes all the way up to the top of that bluff and probably {…} on the south side, then continues up the canyon.”

“The good thing is that’s forest,” Erickson responded, “and that’ll slow it down.”

In response, Kelsay suggested the possibility that in a flooding situation, neither woods nor native prairie grasses will do much to mitigate floodwaters and protect homes. Kelsay, supervisor for District 5, which includes the river-valley towns of Spillville and Fort Atkinson, added that nobody from those towns is asking the county for additional flood mitigation.

“I don’t have people in my district, say, Fort Atkinson, that has a significant amount of flood-prone area, that are petitioning the county to come in and plant native {grasses} so there’s more absorption and less flooding from the Turkey River,” said Kelsay. “They’re not coming in and asking the county to mitigate a flood problem, for properties that they have purchased and reside on, because of the downstream flow of water that comes to them. 

“Your objection is ‘I bought my home in a floodplain area,’ and if the county changes something, {…} it’s going to significantly impact you,” Kelsay continued, “and it becomes the county’s liability, because a property that has been zoned manufacturing for decades, but didn’t get sold for whatever reason, by whatever board in the past, is now the keynote issue of why Freeport floods. And I find that difficult — with backwater and sewage that came into your basements and so forth {…}. So, I think there’s a lot of mitigation that becomes the property owner’s expense.”

“We’re not asking you to plant anything,” Erickson said. “We’re asking you to save the plants.”

Kelsay replied by explaining that if “that particular buyer that caused this to come to the forefront and asked for that land to be used …, they’re gonna plant solar panels on steel posts one foot above the flood line. The DNR, if they approve the plan, anybody that buys it is going to be subject to a DNR approval process. So, I don’t see what the major issue is. We could go beyond what the DNR says. That’s allowed by state code. But, that process is already all in place.”

“So, what you’re saying is that whether or not you sell this land, the DNR is in charge?” Erickson asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Kelsay said. “I said that if the land is sold, and someone wants to do something with it, there is a process in place that is reviewed by the DNR, and the county is responsible to come to and meet the standards that the DNR places on that piece of property on that application.”

“So, they could stop them from doing anything,” Erickson said.

“They could,” Kelsay said. “That’s the risk of a property owner.”

Full article in the February 8 Decorah Public Opinion Newspaper. 

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