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Former campground at center of bluff line debate

The Lodge on Croix facility, located at 300 221st Ave., in the town of Somerset, is at the center of a bill that looks to untether the DNR from zoning authority for properties along the Lower St. Croix River. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

The approval process for bluffland zoning along the lower St. Croix River in Wisconsin would no longer be subject to the Department of Natural Resources under a bill introduced last month in the Legislature.

At the center of the legislation, already seeing opposition from an environmental group, is a would-be wedding facility in the town of Somerset that battled in court with St. Croix County. A permanent injunction — agreed to last year by the property owner, Family First Farms LLC, and the county — prohibits the business from its stated purpose: using the property for weddings or receptions.

The stipulation also called for the Wyoming, Minn.-based Family First Farms business to remove an observation deck on the property, along with a patio.

Josh Hansen, a member of Family First Farms business, said those features have since been removed and the facility isn't doing weddings there anymore.

All that's left are the original buildings that were there when the Hansens bought the facility in 2011.

That, he said, and offers.

The property comprises 284 acres that Hansen said could, under current zoning regulations, be divided into 90 3-acre lots. He said that's not something the family wants, "but those calls are coming in" from developers.

"Having a wedding destination is far, far less (impactful) than cars going into a subdivision," Hansen said. "We're going to be far better stewards."

Enter Rep. Adam Jarchow, a zoning-rights crusader at the Legislature. He was approached by Family First Farms owner Brad Hansen about seeking a solution to the zoning issue.

The business had sought a variance from the county to allow a commercial venue on the property, which is zoned rural residential. Sen. Sheila Harsdorf said the county's hands were tied by the DNR in the decisionmaking process.

As it stands, Wisconsin law prohibits counties and municipalities from issuing zoning variances on Lower St. Croix River blufftop property without DNR consent. The department establishes guidelines and standards for officials in those jurisdictions to follow.

Legislative approach

On June 15, Jarchow, a Balsam Lake Republican, along with three other GOP lawmakers from the St. Croix County delegation, introduced a bill that would dissolve the requirement. The bill also states blufftop event facilities whose existing features don't comply with zoning ordinances would be grandfathered in once the bill becomes law.

While the bill's language seems to specify the Family First Farms facility — a former campground now dubbed Lodge on Croix — Jarchow said the bill is targeting a wider issue.

"The legislation is broad," he said, arguing the bill grandfathers in any former event camp abutting the St. Croix River.

The bill's supporters say it gives local government greater latitude in granting variances for St. Croix River-area requests without having the DNR as the arbiter.

That Lodge on Croix somehow impacts the scenic beauty of the river valley is "patently ridiculous," Jarchow said, echoing similar sentiments from Josh Hansen, who said the former observation deck top rail was the only thing that could be seen from the river during the winter.

Harsdorf, a River Falls Republican who is sponsoring a Senate version of the bill, said the Lodge on Croix facility doesn't infringe on the river valley's scenic features. Harsdorf said "compatible uses" can be achieved in the river valley without undermining its scenic beauty.

"It just made a lot of sense to allow something like this," she said.

The bill, she said would "give the county the ability to make these determinations on a case-by-case basis."

If the bill is to gain traction in the Legislature, it will do so with resistance from environmental groups like the St. Croix River Association, which has already voiced concerns with Harsdorf.

Deb Ryun, executive director of the river association, said her organization is actively opposing the bill.

"The potential of this thing is huge," she said.

Ryun said the bill creates a slippery slope that could undermine the layers of protections established through the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act — a hard-fought congressional designation championed in the 1960s by former Vice President Walter Mondale, a St. Croix River valley resident. Mondale was a U.S. senator at the time and pushed the legislation with former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin.

Ryun said Mondale and a relative of Nelson's could be called upon to speak out against the legislation if it picks up momentum in Madison.

"If this looks like this is really going to go, there will be national voices," she said.

Her biggest concern is how the legislation affects the state-managed wild and scenic zone south of the Stillwater boom site.

"They're striking that written consent of the (DNR)," Ryun said, contending the bill could mean Wisconsin "no longer actively doing the management on the zone."

Jarchow called environmentalists' concerns "complete baloney."

"It's typical scaremongering," he said.

Josh Hansen said Family First Farms took steps to attempt to abide the bluff line rules in constructing the observation deck.

"We didn't think that it was a bluff line," he said of the deck's location relative to county slope-preservation laws. "It was very confusing and conflicting verbage."

St. Croix County Administrator Pat Thompson did not return a call seeking comment on the issue.

Jarchow said he hopes to emphasize the positive effect the bill could have for small businesses in generating support among fellow lawmakers.

"I'm hopeful that it will move," he said. "It's common sense."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

(715) 426-1072
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