A proposed railway would eat up close to 600 acres in Rock County, much of it on the Rock Prairie, farmland that is deemed to be the best in the country, perhaps the world. But at the heart of the debate is whether the U.S. government's Surface Transportation Board should grant eminent domain status to a rail line owned by a private business.
Tim Pogorelski, a Clinton business owner, says the answer to that question is 'no.' He said granting eminent domain to a privately held business would be nothing short of allowing one business to run another business out of business. If, for example, he thinks his business would do better on a corner lot in town, he's not allowed to use eminent domain to force the business owner on that corner lot off the property so he can move in. Pogorelski was one of 50 people speaking against the proposed Great Lakes Basin Transportation rail line at a scoping meeting held by the Surface Transportation Board's Office of Environmental Analysis. About 400 people attended the meeting held here Monday night. No one spoke in favor of the rail line proposal.
Arch Morton, president of the Rock County Farm Bureau, noted that the organization is opposing the proposed rail line. While the rail line would result in the destruction of farmland, extra travel time for area residents and safety hazards, the organization's main objection was over the issue of personal property rights.
It is wrong for eminent domain to be granted to a private business for personal gain. Morton added that, while he would not lose any farmland to the proposed rail line, he believes others' land should not be taken away to solve a problem with the rail system in Chicago.
GLBT Inc. wants to construct and operate a 278-mile rail line that would run from Milton, around Chicago and end near LaPorte, IN. GLBT also is proposing constructing an approximately 15,056-acre rail terminal near Manteno, IL, to provide switching, servicing and repairs to GLBT railroad customers.
The privately owned rail line would bypass the Chicago rail yards. GLBT notes it can take up to 30 hours to pass through the Chicago-area rail yards. The proposal requests a 200-foot easement that would allow for up to six or seven tracks and include a 50-foot easement for electrical power lines. The tracks could accommodate as many as 110 trains per day traveling up to 70 mph. Engines could pull as many as 100 cars.
Dave Navecky, who works in the Office of Environmental Analysis and who chaired Monday's scoping meeting, explained that it was the job of his office to gather environmental, socio-economic and other impacts of the GLBT proposal and present the information to the three-member Surface Transportation Board.
The Board is made of up three appointees of President Obama. That Environmental Impact Statement process alone is expected to take two to three years. Once information is gathered, the Surface Transportation Board will make a decision about whether the rail line would be allowed and whether eminent domain would be granted.
Navecky noted that the Office of Environmental Analysis is required to complete an environmental impact statement whenever it receives remember three key wordsany type of proposal, and the work on the project is no indication that the Surface Transportation Board either favors or opposes the proposal.
'This is their project,' he said of the GLBT. 'Our agency did not develop this project.'
The Surface Transportation Board received the proposal from GLBT in mid-March.
The scoping meeting, like others held in Illinois and Indiana this week, was designed to take comments from area residents and concerned citizens about the impacts the proposed rail line would have. Navecky explained that, for example, his Washington, D.C.-based Office of Environmental Analysis was unaware of the importance of tile lines to farmland in Indiana and the disruption the rail line would likely have on those tile lines.
With the audience heavily dotted with bright orange T-shirts saying 'Rock Against the Rail', residents said the proposed rail line would reduce the quality of life, lower property values and farm income, impact funding of local governements and schools and create safety hazards.
Nick Venable, a fourth-generation crop farmer on the Rock Prairie, said the proposed rail line would result in decreased land values, noise, pollution, increased emergency vehicle response times and loss of farmland. The rail line would run through Venable Farms, which hosted Wisconsin Farm Technology Days in 2001. The proposal also calls for a siding on Venable's farmland.
'Today, I want you to remember three key words: Plano silt loam,' he said. 'This is what makes this land and our opposition different, unique and extremely rare. I challenge you to thoroughly research and consider the soil on the Rock Prairie.'
He stressed that the rich soils of the Rock Prairie are irreplaceable. He cited a quote from Fred Madison, University of Wisconsin - Madison Emeritus Professor of Soil Science, about the soils of the Rock Prairie: 'The challenge is to recognize the Prairie as a precious and irreplaceable natural resource.'
Clinton farmer Ken Luety said the proposed railway would cut fields he farms into triangles, making planting and harvesting more difficult and resulting in unfarmed corners and reduced farm income, and he doesn't know that he would have access to portions of his chopped-up fields.
In an open house held prior to the meeting, one landowner pointed to two fields on a map. If the rail line is constructed, those two fields would be landlocked and he would have no way to get to them, he said. He bought the farm from his mother last fall, he added.
Dave Brandl, who operates a dairy farm near Clinton, noted that, even at today's low prices for corn, the land lost to the rail line in Rock County would reduce the county's agricultural income between $400,000 and $575,000 a year. On his family farm, the rail line would mean between $45,000 and $55,000 in lost income per year.
Matthew Brandl, his son, said that a single train traveling at 45 mph operates at an 83-decibel level. He urged the Surface Transportation Board to look into the noise and vibration levels that a train traveling at 70 mph would produce and the impact the noise and vibration would have on their livestock. American farmers know that food production needs to double by 2050 in order to feed the world's growing population, he added.
'Taking farmland away isn't going to help us do that,' he stressed.
Dawn Ditzenberger of Browntown was among those who noted that there are thousands of miles of rail lines already in existence in Wisconsin. Instead of creating new rail lines, the Surface Transportation Board needs to look at making better use of existing rail lines. She called for improved efficiency of the dozen-plus rail lines already in the Chicago area and urged the Board to look at alternative routes, including abandoned rail beds.
Rock Prairie landowner and real estate agent Jim Zanton said the GLBT rail line is not a necessity to the economy of the country in the way that the first railroads and installation of electric lines were 100 years ago. The rail line would result in the loss of up to one million trucking jobs, and the threat of derailments and car-train accidents would increase. Zanton stressed the loss of farmland and its impact on the U.S. economy.
'Farmland is the most precious commodity that we have,' he said.
Mike Mulligan of Janesville agreed. A rail line should not be carved out of farmland simply because it is viewed as empty space and is easy to shape, he said.
John Rindfleisch, who heads the Clinton Fire Protection District, said the District voted to oppose the proposed rail line based on safety issues and its ability to serve the community. In a district where 95 percent of all calls are on rural roads, emergency response times would be longer and lives would be lost.
Increased train-vehicle traffic accidents and grass fires would strain local budgets. Importantly, he added, even with mutual aid from other cities, local fire departments are undertrained for and unable to deal with the magnitude of a derailment of a 100-car train.
Mary Gilbank Peterson, a rural landowner and real estate agent, noted property values always are lower when there are easements nearby.
Vicky Duoss, a Clinton-area farmer, noted that the historic Emerald Grove United Church of Christ would be negatively impacted by the noise and vibration created by trains passing next to the church every 15 minutes. Vibrations would destroy the church's limestone foundation and damage its stained glass windows, and grading for the rail line could create further water problems, including erosion, ponding and odor problems, for the low-lying church.
Noise from the trains would make it difficult to hold services and Christian education classes, she added.
Barb Andrew, representing the nearby Emerald Grove Cemetery Auxiliary, expressed similar concerns. The proposed rail line would take 100 feet along an entire one end of the historic cemetery, which dates back to the 1850s. It would negatively impact the quality of services held at the cemetery, and a grade change could result in water problems for the cemetery.
Three Clinton-area pre-teens, sporting bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with 'Save Our Farmland', gave reasons why the proposed rail line should be stopped.
Claire Esselman, Marin Firn and Neleah Bubolz said the trains would release carbon dioxide and other pollutants, a derailment near Turtle Creek would have negative impacts on surface and groundwater, farmers would not be able to raise crops on land used for the rail line, and one train passing through the area every 13 minutes would impact their quality of life and sleep patterns and, thereby, their performance in school.
'Please don't let this happen,' one concluded. 'Please give us the chance to farm.'
By way of full disclosure, the proposed rail line would cut through the farm on which the author grew up and through the farms currently owned and operated by her brother and nephew and their families.