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Grass-roots group wants vote on biomass plant

An artist's rendering of the proposed $255 million biomass plant in Rothschild. (Rendering courtesy of the PSC of Wisconsin)

An artist's rendering of the proposed $255 million biomass plant in Rothschild. (Rendering courtesy of the PSC of Wisconsin)

By Paul Snyder

A local dispute over a proposed $255 million biomass plant in Rothschild is morphing into a debate over whether the opposition can force a referendum on the project.

“Based on what our attorney’s said, I question the validity of any referendum they would offer,” said Rothschild Village President Neal Torney.

Yet Village Voice, a group organized in opposition to the We Energies project, still wants a special referendum. Paul Schwantes, a member of the group and owner of Wausau-based Sydney Development LLC, said if the village does not agree to a special referendum, he will force one during the November election.

“I need a petition with 330 signatures,” he said. “I can get that.”

We Energies has proposed building the plant on the site of the Domtar Corp. paper mill to produce 50 megawatts of electricity. Torney said the site is zoned for industrial use, so short of approving site plans such as storm water systems and the height of chimney stacks, Rothschild has little room to reject the project if the project complies with local zoning laws.

“I’m almost certain there would be a legal challenge if we did,” said Torney, who added the village is not spending money on the project.

But that does not prevent Village Voice from petitioning for a referendum, said Dale Thorpe, an attorney for Delavan-based Thorpe & Christian SC, which represents municipalities in the state. He said citizens have a right to petition for a referendum if they are unhappy with government expenditure.

Even though the village would not spend money on the project, Thorpe said, the law is broad enough to cover construction projects residents do not want.

“By the same logic,” he said, “it can be used on building, zoning or rezoning approvals or for residents that just want to see a project stopped.”

But, Thorpe said, he does not know of any cases in which residents petitioned for a referendum over a project with proper zoning and no village money.

“I’m not saying it couldn’t hold up,” he said. “I’m just saying a judge would be looking at it without it being construed in other cases.”

Schwantes said taxpayer money could be at stake if We Energies gets $76 million in federal tax credits for the plant’s construction.

We Energies spokesman Barry McNulty said the utility does not know if it will get the tax credits. The utility only last month submitted its project application to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin and is waiting to learn if the application is complete before figuring out what other approvals are needed.

PSC spokeswoman Teresa Weidemann-Smith said the commission is reviewing the application.

We Energies has and will continue to meet with Village Voice and local residents to listen to concerns and help shape planning, McNulty said. The utility also requested that a PSC hearing on the project be held in Rothschild instead of in Madison.

But Torney said he doubts Village Voice can be swayed.

“I think they’re not really willing to accept what’s being proposed,” he said. “They get the information on the project and then distort it to the point that they feel it’s going to be a detriment to the village.”

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