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County Board uses federal money to buy St. Croix River shoreland

HUDSON – Aug. 4, with only one no vote, the St. Croix County Board of supervisors finalized the purchase of 53 wooded acres along the St. Croix River from retired county Judge C.A. Richards and his wife.

The county will pay $746,000 for the 53.29 acres of undeveloped land -- which includes 2,000 ft. of bluffline and 1,300 ft. of shoreline -- in the town of St. Joseph. The money will come from $2 million of federal funds St. Croix County was allocated to mitigate the impact of the new Stillwater bridge on the scenic river bluffs.

Supervisor Chris Kilber, Hudson, questioned the wisdom of the purchase and of taking the property off the tax roll.

He said while he agrees it’s a plus to have a pleasant view coming across the river into Wisconsin, there are 5.7 million acres of publicly owned land in the state.

Because the state is “gobbling that land up year after year,” the average person is less able to afford to buy land, especially premium property that’s becoming more scarce, said Kilber.

“In the last 10 years how much tax revenue have we gained from that property?” he asked.

Community Development Director Ellen Denzer said the property tax for the land has been between $7,000 and $8,000 a year. A review of online tax records shows the Richardses paid over $74,000 in taxes over the last decade.

Supervisor Dan Hansen, New Richmond, said the Community Development Committee ranked available properties and this property came out on top. He said the primary purpose of the federal fund is shoreland preservation to mitigate the impact the impact of the new bridge and of population growth.

Hansen called the land “the poster property” for those purposes.

“I think of this as something very exciting for St. Croix County,” said Supervisor Agnes Ring, Houlton, of the committee’s recommendation to use St. Croix River St. Croix River Crossing Mitigation funds to buy the property.

“It’s the highest priority that the committee has identified,” said Ring because it’s on the St. Croix River, has bluffline and river frontage and gives the public access that might not otherwise be available.

“There’s not many opportunities left,” added Ring.

Supervisor Travis Schachtner, Somerset, who is also on the committee that evaluated the properties, said this is a good buy.

“The land is also pretty much land-locked, completely forested and is heavily eroded,” he said. “It is really land that, outside of a park, would be a huge investment for any developer to even try to come in and do anything with it.”

He added, “I believe that is a huge opportunity that (the county) should not pass up.”

Supervisor Howard Novotny, North Hudson, asked what it will cost to develop the land for a park.

The next step is to do management plan so there are no cost estimates yet, replied Denzer. She said potential recreational activities on the land would be very low impact, including swimming, fishing and hiking. She said there would be no campgrounds and the only intent is to add parking and restrooms.

“The parcel is very steep,” said Denzer, noting that in the 1930s, ravines on the site collapsed and created the beach, and erosion is spreading.

Denzer said people will be able to walk, but not drive, to the water. She added that while the land is steep with very erodible soils, it has “lovely” scenic points.

But, said Denzer, low impact recreation is not the primary purpose of the purchase.

“The purpose of these (mitigation) funds is not to create county parks,” she said. “The purpose of the funds is to protect lands perpetually for land and water conservation, water quality preservation and improvement, erosion and storm water control (and) scenic value from the river for people who might boat in.”

Supervisor Carah Koch, Hudson, agreed that the purchase is an opportunity for the county, noting that some of the most beautiful parks in the country are wild and scenic.

Bike and hiking trails that will run from old bridge to the new and to Willow River State Park are very close so people using those trails can stop here, said Supervisor Jill Berke, town of Troy. Because of the development of the loop trail and the new bridge, this is the ideal time and place for “a passive park” for bikers or motorists, she said.

While the mitigation funds can be used only to buy land, there may be federal grants to help stop erosion, added Denzer.

The resolution to buy passed on a 17 to one vote, with only Kilber voting against the purchase.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.