MORRISON – Peat mining will continue in Whiteside County.
The Whiteside County Board on Tuesday overturned, 23-3, a recommendation from the Planning and Zoning Commission to deny a special-use permit for a controversial peat-mining operation west of Morrison.
Donald Blair, Daniel Bitler and Sarah McNeill cast the three dissenting votes.
Landowners Mark Stichter and Jeff Hanson, who started the peat-mining operation without a permit in the spring, requested the county allow them to mine peat on their property near Fenton Road, north of Garden Plain Road.
Neighbors, many of whom oppose the operation, informed the county, and the county required the landowners obtain a special-use permit.
Peat is a highly organic, topsoil material found in marshy or damp regions. It is considered useful for gardening.
Companies, which have been mining peat for three or four decades, if not longer, in Whiteside County, buy up farmland to remove the rich topsoil. The stripped land no longer is good for farming and typically is filled with water.
Several County Board members spoke in favor of peat mining. The operation is a viable industry and should not be discouraged, they said.
"We say we want to promote industry and economic development within the county, but we seem to be making it as hard as possible for people to start or expand ..." William Abbott said. "We should do what we can – if we really mean we want industry to come into Whiteside County – we should do what we can to encourage it rather than discourage it."
Blair and McNeill both argued the board should heed the recommendation of the zoning committee, which reviewed evidence and heard sworn testimony on the proposal.
Neighbors spoke against peat mining, but not until after the board voted to overturn the recommendation from the zoning committee – a common occurrence at county board meetings. Peat mining forever destroys prime farmland, they said.
"It destroys the land forever," Sandra Hamm, perhaps the most vocal opponent of the proposed operation, said. "If you look at those ponds of water, surely you will realize it's not going to be farmed again. It's done for."
"Farmland will keep producing year after year," Diane Engelkins added. "But once it's gone, it's not going to produce anything. It's going to stand in water."
One board member reminded the group that peat mining is a longtime practice in this area.
"This is a business that has been in operation for 50 years," William Milby said. "It's a farming practice that is accepted down there."
At least one neighbor, generally against the operation, admitted peat mining wasn't a concern until it moved closer to his neck of the woods.
"I guess we could live with it as long as it stayed on the south side of Garden Plain Road," Gene Pessman said. "But now that it's expanded, it's taking away from the land next to my farm."
The special-use permit approved Tuesday includes some parameters for access to the property as well as removal of peat that might find its way onto the road.
The Whiteside County Board on Tuesday also, after a short executive session, unanimously voted to buy the second through fifth floors of the Lawrence Building.
The county already owns the first floor of the building.
No further information was presented at the meeting, but minutes of the Executive Committee meeting July 9 indicate the building could be used for court services currently carried out at the Sterling courthouse.