Pennington County Board of Commissioners took another step toward regulating hard rock mining in the county.
On Tuesday during their regular meeting, the commissioners voted unanimously to support the creation of a hard rock mining ordinance but altered slightly from previous plans to form a committee to draft the regulations.
Hard rock mining is a generic reference to the various ways of excavating or extracting hard minerals or precious metals like gold, copper, zinc or nickel. It is different than soft rock mining, which extracts soft minerals like coal.
In February, commissioners voted to form a committee to draft regulations for hard rock mining in the county. But those efforts stalled when a separate mining ordinance was challenged legally. In September, Pennington County resident and attorney Bruce Ellison approached commissioners about revisiting the ordinance and the committee's formation.
During their Sept. 4 meeting, commissioners voted 3-1 to have Ellison draft a proposal for a committee formation. On Tuesday, commission office manager Holli Hennies presented a new proposal to create the ordinance, which skips the creation of a committee. Instead, Hennies proposed county staff use Lawrence County's hard rock mining ordinance, which refers to it as the "extractive industry," as a template and customize it to meet Pennington County's needs. Once staff has a draft of the ordinance, it will be subject to public review.
The proposal suggests a tentative timeline, with a county review of the ordinance between April and June, and a 90-day public review and comment period from July to September. After that, the Planning Commission would hold public hearings around October, followed by Board of Commissioners public hearings.
Each phase would include "as many meetings as are necessary for final product," according to the draft proposal. Hennies and commissioners also emphasized that they would welcome public comment and input regarding the ordinance from everyone throughout the ordinance creation.
At first, Ellison balked at not using a committee, fearing it would limit public input into the process.
"I know there’s a tremendous amount of public concern" about hard rock mining proposals, Ellison said, citing environmental issues in particular. "Don’t make this a meeting in the dark that we then find out afterwards. ... This is too important to us, please."
The commissioners, however, promised there would be ample time for public feedback. Using Lawrence County's ordinance as a template simply gives the public a clearer idea of what they're responding to, they said.
"I think what the purpose here is, is to give us a foundation and then allow a great deal of public testimony," Commissioner Mark DiSanto said. "I’m with you, I have great concerns about hard rock mining and what it will do to our Black Hills and our watershed and everything else."
Commissioner Ron Rossknecht agreed, saying the commission would welcome the public's input on Lawrence County's ordinance, which has already been vetted and gone through several legal challenges.
"As I’ve said this before, we don’t want to mess with our water … I’m all for being transparent and taking care of our natural resources," he said.
"I think every one of us that sit up here, and staff, agrees that our resources are critical to us, and we need to protect those. And I think that will be first and foremost on our minds as we go forward," Commissioner Gary Drewes said.
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Selecting people for a committee can also result in hard feelings, and there's "always going to be someone who feels that they were left out," Commissioner Lloyd LaCroix said.
This process gives every group a chance to review the drafted ordinance and then weigh in, he said.
Ellison seemed more comfortable with the process following the commissioners' assurances but still urged the county to put forth every effort to keep the public informed and encourage input.
"I can’t disagree strongly with it; it’s a question of what happens from here on," he said. "I accept your feelings this could in fact enhance public input. I really hope it does."
Speaker request forms discussed
Commissioners also discussed adding more structure to how it handles public comment during its meetings, with a unanimous vote to have LaCroix bring two drafts of a proposed speaker request form to the next commission meeting.
As it functions now, typically, the commission chair — currently Chairwoman Deb Hadcock — asks for input as each agenda item is discussed, first from commissioners, then from anyone in the audience who would like to speak. If someone raises their hand, Hadcock calls them to the front of the room where they stand at a podium with a microphone and speak to commissioners.
There is also a general public comment period toward the end of the meeting, where anyone may address the commissioners on any topic, even if it is not on the agenda.
LaCroix was inspired, in part, by a constituent who told him she missed a chance to speak during a meeting because she didn't know she was supposed to raise her hand and be recognized by the chairperson.
"I just wanted to plant the seed in your guys' minds. If it's a weed, we'll throw it out," LaCroix said. "If it's a flower, we'll add water and sunshine."
He suggested the board begin using the request forms, which would require members of the public who wish to speak during the meeting to fill out a form and give it to the commission staff. Staff would then give the form to the commission chair, who would have it as a reference to call on people during the meeting.
DiSanto said people often choose to address commissioners in response to what they've heard during the meeting. He worried that speaker request forms could hinder that spontaneous discussion or feedback.
Hadcock, however, said the forms are used by the Rapid City Council and seem to work well without hindering public input. She and LaCroix said the forms would actually make it harder for commissioners to overlook individuals who want to speak.
"It's good customer service, or in this case, constituent service," Hadcock said.