NEW RICHMOND -- Even as council members voted unanimously Monday night to spend $5,000 to retain a legal consultant to evaluate a plan by Canadian National Railroad Co. and subsidiary Wisconsin Central Ltd. to build an automobile transfer lot just west of the city, there was a sense that an unfair fight was brewing.
For all practical purposes, the project falls outside the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction; the property is located in the Town of Richmond.
City Planning Director Noah Wiedenfeld said the transfer lot is not consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan nor those of the Town of Richmond or St. Croix County. He also noted no application has been filed with the Town or the County.
On Friday, CN officials notified township Chairman Gary Knutson that the companies were in the process of finalizing the purchase of 120 acres at 105th Street and County Road A/Highway 64 from the estate of Robert and Leona Asp. The facility would occupy a 40 acre parcel on the south side of A and require 34 acres to be blacktopped to create roughly 2,300 parking spaces from which more than 400 vehicles a day or an estimated 120,000 vehicles annually would be delivered to Twin Cities dealerships. That distribution would require steady semi trailer traffic daily. The facility would be lighted and operate 24 hours a day, four to five days a week. CN estimates the operation would create six to 14 jobs.
Even if the city did have some sort of zoning jurisdiction, it appears its hands would still be tied as are those of the Town and County. Railroads are recognized as unique entities having played a central role in the development of U.S. commerce. In the eyes of the federal government, that historic contribution continues today and so railroads are exempt from paying local property taxes in many states including Wisconsin and are not subject to local or state zoning ordinances.
“The Town of Richmond has reached out to an outside consultant with a background in rail projects and transportation related issues to have on retainer to at least look at the issue and give an opinion to see what options the town and county might have for the project as to whether there is a way to prevent it or not,” Wiedenfeld said.
He suggested the next step will be to coordinate a joint outreach effort between the three local governments to state and federal representatives.
New Richmond City Administrator Mike Darrow recommended the city pay $5,000 toward the legal consultant and offered that there are additional steps the city can take even in the face the federally empowered railroad.
“The second thing is, in partnership with the town, to indicate that this is not a good spot for this proposed location and the findings of why in direct contact with the proposed users. If we can come in with a collaborative effort from policy makers, sometimes that does make a difference,” Darrow said.
The $5,000 check is contingent on the Town of Richmond contributing the same amount toward the retainer. The Town Board held a special meeting Tuesday night, Aug. 27. Results were not available at press time. It is expected that St. Croix County would be contributing funds toward the retainer.
At a meeting in early July, Town of Richmond officials were joined by New Richmond and St. Croix County officials and a handful of residents in voicing their concerns directly to officials from CN/WCL. Concerns included noise, light pollution, impact on the value of surrounding property, loss of property tax revenues and potential development opportunities.
Wisconsin Central has offered to discuss berms, landscaping, noise barriers, etc. with the town to mitigate concerns from neighboring properties.
CN is reported to have been looking for an appropriate location for three years. Now that company officials have apparently found the right property, they are proposing an aggressive timeline hoping to have closed on the sale and completed alterations to 105th Street by the end of 2019 with the transfer lot being operational by June 2020.
Although discussions have been ongoing between the Town of Richmond and CN officials, a public face-to-face meeting is expected to be scheduled sometime in September.