SPRING PRAIRIE — A heated debate over a proposed gravel pit has gotten too hot for town Chairman Don Henningfeld.
After eight years in office, Henningfeld has abruptly resigned, citing the ongoing strife over a gravel pit development that some townsfolk are fighting to stop.
Witnesses say Henningfeld stood up during the July 8 town board meeting, announced his resignation and walked out while the meeting was still going on.
“He just picked up and left,” town supervisor Lynn Lein said.
The gravel pit was not on the agenda that night, but opponents of the development were in attendance for another chance to voice their opposition to the town’s elected leaders.
Town Clerk Debra Collins said the chairman remarked, “It’s gotten out of hand.”
Contacted at home, Henningfeld said he decided to resign because of harsh backlash on the gravel pit issue. One opponent wished some people involved in the project were dead, he said. Another called his wife and told her that Henningfeld had “screwed up” Spring Prairie.
It got to the point, Henningfeld said, that police security was needed at town hall to keep the gravel pit opponents under control.
“They’re just like a pack of dogs,” he said.
The remaining town board members convened in a special meeting July 16 and appointed former town supervisor Tom Bolfert as the new chairman.
While Henningfeld had voiced support for the gravel pit development, Bolfert says he is undecided on the issue.
“I’m like a judge in court — until I hear all the facts, I’m not going to make a ruling,” Bolfert said.
The town of 2,000 people north of Lake Geneva has been embroiled in conflict on the issue ever since Asphalt Contractors Inc. earlier this year unveiled plans for a 260-acre development along state Highway 120.
The Union Grove-based company wants to excavate gravel from the site at a rate of 150,000 tons a year — about 44 truckloads a day — and haul it to an asphalt plant in Burlington.
The company says there is a growing shortage of gravel as a building material for road repairs and other uses in the region.
But neighbors who fear noise, debris and other disruption hope that town supervisors will block the gravel pit project by voting against rezoning of the former farmland along Highway 120 near Highway 11.
The matter will first go before the town plan commission and then before the town board. The plan commission has postponed action, possibly until September, while asking Asphalt Contractors Inc. to provide more information about the project.
Town officials say they have received considerable feedback on the issue from Spring Prairie residents.
Town Supervisor Donald Trimberger said he has experienced some of the same harsh criticism that pushed Henningfeld out of office.
Trimberger said he has no plans to resign, but he has been subjected to name-calling and verbal abuse, he said.
Referring to Henningfeld, Trimberger said: “I think he just got fed up with it. It was enough to make him resign.”
Lein disagreed that residents fighting the gravel pit have been excessive or abusive toward the local elected officials.
Lein, who opposes the gravel pit, said she has heard from hundreds of people on the issue. None of them have engaged in name-calling or verbal abuse toward her, she said.
Noting the importance of the gravel pit decision, she said: “People in the town want to be heard. They’re upset — and rightly so.”
Both Lein and Trimberger said they have not decided how to vote on the issue.
The town board includes two supervisors and one town chairman, all of whom are elected to serve two-year terms. The supervisors each are paid $4,700 a year for their service, while the chairman earns $7,200 a year.
With opposition, Henningfeld was re-elected in April to his fifth term as chairman.
Trimberger and Lein were also elected in April, both out-polling Bolfert, who was seeking his fifth term on the town board.
In searching for a new town chairman appointee, the two supervisors and the town clerk discussed a couple of possible candidates before approving Bolfert on a 2-1 vote. The “no” vote came from Lein.
Bolfert said he has been following the gravel pit debate and he is confident the town can continue moving forward on the issue without interruption, despite Henningfeld’s abrupt departure.
Bolfert expressed sympathy for the former chairman for having to weather the storm of upheaval that surrounds the controversial topic.
“The town chairman was caught in the middle of this thing,” Bolfert said. “I think it was probably difficult for him.”