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Greenville's illegal dredging draws outcry

Duke Behnke
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Outagamie County and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources ordered temporary erosion controls earlier this year along an illegally dredged stream and karst feature on farmland west of State 76 in Greenville.

GREENVILLE - Angry town residents demanded accountability of their government Tuesday for the illegal dredging of a karst feature on farmland west of State 76.

Much of the criticism was aimed at Supervisor Mike Woods, who farms the land where the dredging was done and who, other town officials said, directed the project.

Resident Jean Goffard called for Woods to resign from the Town Board or for the town chairman or Town Board to remove him from office.

"You are not to be trusted," Goffard told Woods. "You are not to be believed. You are not worthy of being on Greenville's Town Board."

Other residents in attendance at the town's annual meeting echoed her demand.

Goffard also suggested the entire Town Board attend a workshop on ethics and conflicts of interest.

"Not everyone on the Town Board has the same reputation," Goffard said, "but my issue is that you enable unethical behavior to continually take place by town board members and paid officials."

Woods remained silent throughout the criticism until a resident called upon him to respond. "Can't say a word, my attorney said," Woods said.

Town Administrator Dave Tebo previously told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin that the dredging was "initiated, designed and constructed" by Woods as an agricultural project and that it wasn't a town project.

Yet the town paid the $13,985 bill for the dredging and paid another $32,950 for temporary erosion controls ordered after the fact by Outagamie County, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The town also hired McMahon Group to develop a plan for the restoration of the karst feature, a navigable stream and an adjacent wetlands. County and state regulators say the restoration could cost $100,000 or more.

Steve Nagy, a representative of a group of Greenville residents and property owners called Ethics First! Greenville, said in a letter to the the town that he was troubled by evidence that Woods "has used his position and influence within town government to create tens of thousands of dollars in town expenditures for a project with a goal of personal gain."

"It should be obvious that these actions violate the code of ethics our elected officials pledge to uphold," Nagy wrote.

He said residents will be closely watching how the town handles the problem. The destruction of the karst feature — an opening in the ground caused by the dissolution of bedrock — raises the risk for groundwater contamination and flooding downstream.

"Any resolution that falls short of complete mitigation of the illegal excavations, with all costs born by Supervisor Woods, will be considered less than satisfactory," Nagy said.

Supervisor Dean Culbertson said the Town Board never authorized the project, but he didn't have an answer why the town paid the bill. "This is embarrassing for us," he said.

Supervisor Andy Peters said he would push for answers. "We will investigate this," he said. "We will get to the bottom of it, and we will make it right."

Resident Dennis Luebke told town officials that residents have lost faith in them because they "think you're protecting your own." He suggested the town hire an independent attorney or agency to investigate the conduct of everyone involved.

For the town to conduct the investigation, Luebke said, is like "putting the fox in charge of henhouse security."

Resident John Julius said he suspects the town might have attempted to use Woods' agricultural project as a pretext to channel stormwater from residential subdivisions to a navigable stream a half mile away.

He praised county and state regulators for holding the town responsible and encouraged residents to defend the karst feature and demand good government.

"May this night go down in Greenville history as the night when a diverse group of determined residents rallied together in their sadness and frustration for responsible government actions and environmental equity," Julius said.

Greenville's own GreenPrint plan designates the karst as a unique geologic feature of high importance. In addition, the town passed a resolution in 2015 agreeing to protect the karst and disappearing stream from any detrimental effects from future development.

Woods told DNR regulators that his failure to obtain permits for the dredging was an oversight.

Resident Neil Ort said in an email that anyone who has farmed knows about the restrictions for streams and wetlands because county officials "continually remind farmers of the laws and penalties for violations."

Ort said for Woods "to not be aware of the laws and expect us to accept his explanation of this situation is an insult to our intelligence."

Tim Roach, Outagamie County zoning administrator, said the stream was dug 10 to 12 feet deep in the area of the karst, something the county never would have permitted. The depth of the stream previously was 1½ to 2 feet.