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Op-ed: When Guidelines Don’t Guide (by Julianne Atkinson of Clear Lake)


This news story was published on December 14, 2011.
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The Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting started by a staff report that listed the five guidelines, which I believe are mandated by the state and that must be met in order to grant an unconditional permit to businesses or individuals who want to use property within the city limits in ways that are not in the zoning plan. If the five conditions or guidelines are not met, the ZBA can specify conditions that must be met in order for the proposal to be permitted.

The CES conditional permit had, was it 28 conditions(?!) that would have to be met before it would be permitted to build and operate a garbage incineration by pyrolysis plant within the Mason City limits.

I was pleased and proud when the chairman of the board said that alone raised a red flag for him…the idea that there were 28 ways in which the proposal did not meet the code.

That left four board members to state how they felt. While they deliberated, a staff member read a list of the permitted uses for the area in which CES wants to build. One of the listed permitted uses was a day care center. Does it seem logical that an area zoned to permit a day care center would not be a permitted area for a garbage incineration facility? It certainly does to me.

The other four continued to deliberate. One looked at the 28 conditions and said,” with these it’s a green light. Let’s go.” Many of the 28 dealt with the effluents of the proposed plant, which would be the first of its kind in operation in this country, using unproven technology. The effluents would include, among a nasty list of other things, dioxins, substances that in other instances have claimed many lives in this country. Sites where they have been found can be seen on lists of toxic clean-up sites. But to this one board member, the fact that dioxins would be emitted didn’t look like a red flag. He in fact said he had kids in the area where the winds would take the emissions, and he would vote in favor of it.

Another board member seemed to have reached his limit. He was just wanting to get this whole thing over with. At no time did he make a comment which represented a health concern, a concern over a drop in property resale values, or a concern about conflicts with permitted uses.

That leaves two. They seemed really fascinated with the measurement of the pollutants that the plant would produce. How often would they be measured, who would do it, would it be a transparent process, where would measuring devices be located? Like Mason City could become the place where we found out how many dioxin microparticles it takes to give a child cancer.

These are zoning guidelines. Don’t permit anything that threatens public health. Don’t permit anything that could interfere with other permitted uses. Don’t permit anything that would lower property values. My teenaged niece used to have a word appropiate for this situation, and she said it so well, ending with mouth agape. It is “DUH!” Guidelines don’t guide? Because some people don’t want them to.

Another guideline is When in Doubt, Don’t. Bet you can think of more. I just hope the board members of ZBA will realize why they have the guidelines, and use them to make, really, an easy choice, Based on the Guidelines.

Julianne Atkinson
Clear Lake

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