ROCKPORT — It was standing room only at the Spencer County Commissioners meeting Wednesday as the three-man board made a decision about a local ordinance governing mining.

Had the commissioners not struck it down, the proposed ordinance amendment would have changed the county’s special exception requirements for land in agriculture zones and made mineral extraction, including surface coal mining, a permitted use on agricultural land. Currently, property owners must obtain a special exception permit from the county’s board of zoning appeals to open mines on their property.

The proposed change came at the request of three petitioners who own land near county roads 500 East and 600 East and State Road 245, the Spencer County Journal Democrat reported in October. In April, the petitioners sought to open a surface coal mine managed by Sun Energy of Huntingburg on their property.

The county’s board of zoning appeals denied their special exception permit after significant opposition from residents. The petitioners then took the request to the Spencer County Circuit Court, which ended in an unfavorable ruling. After the court’s decision, the petitioners sought to change the county ordinances. That effort has also proven unsuccessful after Wednesday’s vote from the commissioners.

Of the three commissioners, only Tom Brown supported the change. He said he believed that if property owners have minerals on their land, they should have the right to mine them.

“Mining is something we’ve had in the county for years,” Brown said.

Brown added that he believes there are enough mining regulations at the state and federal level.

The other two commissioners — Jim Seilers and Al Logsdon — were not convinced, and both voted against the change, to the relief of many in attendance.

The county’s ordinances currently require special exception permits from the board of zoning appeals for many uses of agricultural land, including auto body shops, farm equipment sales, veterinary clinics and roadside fruit stands. John Wetherill, attorney for the Spencer County Board of Zoning Appeals and Plan Commission, explained that the board didn’t see why these uses should require a special exception permit, but the mine should not.

“It’s not unreasonable to require people to prove a mine won’t be harmful,” Wetherill said.

Kevin Patmore, a Santa Claus attorney, shared similar arguments. He is representing about 40 property owners near the proposed Sun Energy mine that are against both the mine and the change in county ordinances.

Patmore also pointed out that changing the ordinance now didn’t make much sense. The county’s plan commission has a comprehensive planning process underway, and Patmore pointed out that if the commissioners wanted to make a change to ordinances, the change could be considered as part of the comprehensive plan.

In Dubois County, the process of opening a mine in an agriculture zone would be much simpler. Dubois County has no zoning for county land or land-use restrictions for mining, so as long as the mine satisfies state and federal regulations, landowners are free to mine.

“If someone wanted to open a mine, I think they could do it,” attorney Art Nordhoff said.

Nordhoff served as the Dubois County attorney for several years before retiring from the post earlier this year.

There are two active mines in Dubois County, one in Ireland and one in Cass Township.

Although the county would not get involved in the opening of the mine, Nordhoff said the county highway department would get involved if mining trucks were using county roads. The heavy trucks can damage the roads, Nordhoff explained, so the county would have an interest in holding the mining company accountable for any damages.

Highway Superintendent Steve Berg explained that in such cases, the county requires the mining company to take out bonds on the roads so the county is covered should the company fail to repair any damages caused by its operations. If the mine will be active for a while, Berg said, the county would recommend that the mining company improve the roads its using to withstand the weight of mining trucks. The cost of those improvements would fall to the mining company.

When a mine closes, Berg said, the companies are required to return the roads to as good or better condition than when the mine opened.

Although mining is a major industry for Southwestern Indiana, Nordhoff said the opening of new mines does not come up often in Dubois County.
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