Union County approves zoning ordinance for Hyperion
By Dave Dreeszen Journal business editor
ELK POINT, S.D. -- Flashing a smile, Joyce Bortscheller briefly hugged Hyperion Energy Center executive Preston Phillips as she greeted him in the backyard of her home here.
Bortscheller, president of the Elk Point City Council, had invited about 250 supporters to an outdoor barbecue Tuesday to await the returns for arguably the most important election in Union County's history. The big crowd didn't leave disappointed.
As midnight approached, they popped the champagne corks, celebrating a hard-fought victory that keeps alive the county's chances of landing the nation's first all-new oil refinery in 32 years.
By a solid 58 percent to 42 percent margin, county voters approved Hyperion's request to rezone 3,292 acres of farm land for a new classification, Energy Center Planned Development.
"What happened tonight, we were not supposed to be able to do," Phillips told a cheering audience. "Development projects like this are supposed to be outright rejected by residents and neighbors. But this project is a testament to our balancing the needs for growth and for protecting the environment."
At stake was billions of dollars in capital investment and thousands of high-paying jobs. From the beginning, Hyperion executives said they would abandon its Union County site, just north of Elk Point, if a majority of voters failed to give their blessing to the rezoning.
While conceding defeat, opponents vowed to keep fighting the controversial project on every imaginable front, pressing on with a lawsuit it filed against the county over the zoning procedures and opposing Hyperion as it applies for a bevy of state and federal permits.
"We have strategies in place to slow or delay all the permit processes," Ed Cable, chairman of the anti-Hyperion group Save Union County, said after the vote.
Tuesday's historic election culminated a months-long, emotionally charged campaign that pitted neighbor against neighbor in this extreme southeast South Dakota county.
Supporters cited the once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunities the $10 billion project would bring.
An average of 4,500 construction jobs would be required over four years. With the refinery up and running, Hyperion pledges to create 1,826 full-time jobs at hourly wages of between $20 and $30.
"I think it would be a great opportunity for young people to stay in this area instead of leaving for other states," Kelly Hoekstra, 31, of Dakota Dunes said after casting a vote in favor of the rezoning.
Opponents argued the massive development would not be worth the pollution and other troubles they claimed the refinery would bring. The health risks traditionally associated with a refinery weighed heavily on the minds of some voters.
"I live out here. I don't need the pollution," said Jim Schroeder of McCook Lake, after voting against the rezoning.
The contentious issue largely broke along urban and rural lines, with residents living the closest to the Hyperion site fighting the hardest to keep the refinery out of their backyards.
Tuesday's record turnout largely reflected that split, with early returns from the mostly rural precincts putting the "No" votes squarely in the lead. As votes were tallied in the more populated area, particularly in the southeast tier closest to Sioux City, that lead was slowly erased.
The ordinance took a slim 205-vote lead after 11 of the 13 precincts reported. Hyperion supporters declared victory after the Elk Point precinct results came in, increasing the rezoning lead by 150 votes.
Last to report was voter-rich Dakota Dunes, where an unusually large number of absentee ballots slowed the counting. In the Dunes, the ordinance easily passed, 1,017 to 236 votes.
"That's huge," Phillips told the cheering crowd.
The final tally was 3,932 votes in favor of the ordinance and 2,832 against.
Hyperion touted the so-called "green" technology in its proposed energy center, which it claims would be the world's cleanest. The refinery would process 400,000 barrels of tar sands crude from Alberta into low-sulfur gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
Supporters argued that tapping into reserves from our neighbor to the north would reduce the nation's dependence on Mideast oil and add badly needed refining capacity in the U.S., where the last all-new refinery was built in 1976.
Both sides flooded the county's nearly 10,000 registered voters with paid ads, direct mailers and door-to-door stops, combining to raise and spend more than $100,000.
A ballot question committee formed by Dallas, Texas-based Hyperion alone poured in at least $45,000.
"It was close, and one of the reasons why was negative campaigning worked," Phillips told supporters. "We have always taken the high road, and we will continue to take the high road."
Hyperion project executive J.L. "Corky" Frank, a former Marathon Oil executive, joined Phillips for Tuesday night's celebration, where supporters enjoyed music, food and drink and regularly checked their cell phones for up-to-date election numbers.
Addressing the audience, Phillips thanked the local supporters, including Bortscheller and her husband, Gary, for hosting the party.
Last summer, after Hyperion publicly announced its interest in the Union County site, Bortscheller, who is also a local economic development leader, organized a barbecue for Hyperion CEO Albert Huddleston to introduce him to local residents.
"From the very beginning I was on board because I felt it was the right thing for our county," Bortscheller said early in the evening.
Journal staff writer Michele Linck contributed to this story.
Would be nice so long as it goes through.