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Diamond Bluff project clears key hurdle

Opponents of a controversial Diamond Bluff sand-hauling operation lost an important battle Wednesday when a key Pierce County panel gave the project its blessing.

The Piece County Land Management Committee approved a conditional-use permit for the project, which would offload about 350,000 cubic yards of sand from nearby Corps Island directly through Diamond Bluff.

Numerous residents have opposed the project, claiming a pall of diesel exhaust and the roar of near-continuous dump truck activity would put a stranglehold on the tiny river community for months.

"Everyone's pretty disappointed," said Patrick Hynes, attorney for Citizens of Diamond Bluff, the group opposing the plan. "There's a feeling that none of the decision makers are really considering the impact that this is going to have on the quality of life on the people there."

The board also denied a different trucking route the citizens group recommended as an alternative if the permit was approved.

If additional bureaucratic hurdles are cleared, the project could begin July 1, said Taylor Luke, project manager for the contractor, LS Marine. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded the Vadnais Heights, Minn.-based company the $1.8 million contract.

LS Marine underbid the next lowest contractor by $500,000 by proposing to haul the sand out by truck rather than pump it out hydraulically.

Despite the panel's decision Wednesday, opponents of the project said they will continue the battle. Hynes said that could mean taking the matter to court as a last resort.

The committee's decision came after extensive testimony from residents who argued that the trucking operation would temporarily transform the residential community into an industrial zone.

"It is clearly contrary to the character of the town," Hynes said.

Luke said he empathizes with the residents' plight, but asserted that the project must continue as planned.

"If this is happening where I live, I'd be doing the same things these people are doing," he said. "It's an inconvenience no matter where we do it. Unfortunately for these residents, it's an inconvenience for them."

The project's remaining hurdles -- for now -- include U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval of an environmental assessment. The Wisconsin Department of the Natural Resources must also approve a permit for LS Marine to construct an offloading site along the Mississippi River's shoreline in Diamond Bluff.

Barring litigation, the Corps' process likely represents the last opportunity for opponents to make an impact on the project.

At least one member of the 18-person citizens group said he's becoming pessimistic that efforts to block the project will succeed.

"I'm not too confident that they're going to see all of it our way," said resident Bill Nafe. "Will we win? Probably not. But we'll slow them down."

Nafe said he blames the Diamond Bluff Town Board for not rejecting the project from the beginning. An agreement between the town board and the contractor calls for LS Marine to return all affected streets to current conditions and to pay $25,000.

"The Town Board of Diamond Bluff sold out the residents of Diamond Bluff for $25,000 and a couple buckets of paint," Nafe said.

Luke said the agencies' decisions are expected in time to keep with the anticipated July 1 start date, but he didn't know if that would allow enough time to complete the entire project on schedule.

According to an agreement with the Corps, the project must be completed by the end of the year.

"They've verbally OK'd an extension to the schedule if needed," Luke said.