New Richmond Town Board Chairman Gary Knutson facilitated back-to-back meetings on the Canadian National/Wisconsin Central Ltd.’s proposal to build a 38-acre auto transfer lot operation just west of the city. A strategy with the city and county is taking shape.
At one point the proposed lot on the Robert and Leona Asp Estate property at 105th Street and County Road A/Highway 64 was projected to move than a million vehicles annually. According to St. Croix County Highway Commissioner Robbie Krejci, the railroad recently provided a more accurate count of 480 cars to be off-loaded daily, delivered by 40 rail cars a day, each carrying 12 automobiles. That would require 40 one-way truck trips or 80 round trips daily.
On Sept. 11, the Town Board met with legal counsel, city of New Richmond officials, St. Croix Director of Community Development Ellen Denzer and Highway Commissioner Robbie Krejci to review the latest developments in Hudson.
“There are two key things we’ve got to think about. Number one, time is of the essence if we’re going to act on this. As of the last discussion we had with the railroad, they are moving forward,” Krejci said. “The other key point is communication between the county, the city, the highway commissioner and the town.”
Initially St. Croix County officials indicated that zoning might provide the most obvious means to prevent the railroad project. The property is zoned for agriculture. An auto transfer terminal would require rezoning to industrial zoning and amending the comprehensive plans of the town, city and county -- none of which favors of the project.
Tim Scott, an attorney, earlier recommended the town and city jointly retain Madison-based attorney Kathy Chung of Hawks Quindel S.C. Her credentials include serving as head of the Railroad Division at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and numerous appearances before the Surface Transportation Board, a federal institution frequently consulted in railroad disputes.
Chung offered a concise plan: First, determine realistically if the transfer lot can be prevented. Second, if it cannot, instead of a prolonged and expensive court battle, work with CN/WCL to minimize the negative impacts.
New Richmond City Administrator Mike Darrow emphasized the importance of communities presenting a united front. He advised the coalition restrict public disclosure by using closed session to stop the railroad from taking advantage.
“It’s also imperative that we have the opportunity to strategize because the more that we’re out there in open session talking about something that from a strategic perspective, if there is litigation or whatever happens, you don’t want to show your cards for them (the railroad) to understand,” Darrow said.
Scott said the legal case Boston & Maine Corp v. Town of Ayer in Massachusetts dealt with a railroad automobile unloading facility similar to the one being proposed locally. The case offers some insight into how a legal battle might turn out.
The Ayer case went through several legal iterations including attempts by that community to impose 36 conditions on the issuance of any permits and an attempt to classify the project as noisome. The case was referred to the Surface Transportation Board and, following its recommendations, the federal court ruled in favor of the railroad including nearly $287,000 in attorney fees.
New Richmond City Attorney Nick Vivian then characterized the immediate strategy.
“I’m sure there will be some things that need to be discussed in closed session, some things with attorney Chung out of the spotlight of the public, but the goal is to provide as much information as often as we can to the public,” he said.
“I will argue the folks who are impacted most are the neighbors and those are town and city and county. Those are people who are farmers, laborers and stay-at-home moms and dads and all kinds of people. We owe it to them to be up front as often as possible,” Darrow agreed.
Darrow urged all of the community leaders and residents alike to keep in mind that the outcome of this project will affect generations to come.
Town Hall meeting
Then on Sept. 12, a standing-room-only crowd greeted the Town Board at its regular meeting.
A motion quickly moved the Wisconsin Central Limited Auto Transfer facility discussion to the top of the agenda.
The board moved and unanimously approved hiring Chung and her law firm, Hawks Quindel S.C., to represent both the town and the city. Those government entities each are contributing a $5,000 retainer.
Chairman Knutson acknowledged the limited capacity of the town to fight a project of this scale and welcomed the city’s support.
Scott, the town attorney, reminded the audience that any arguments against the railroad facility, whether it be noise, light, air quality, traffic, safety, property value or loss of tax revenue must be Scott also suggested one possible path to contesting the project would be to convince the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to oppose the project at the state level. WisDOT frequently works with railroads to facilitate growth across the state.
Gary Bakke, a New Richmond attorney, sits on the Town Plan Commission. He said he spoke with Chung and endorsed the town’s decision to hire her. He also agreed with Scott.
“If WisDOT is on your side, you may discourage them because the railroad needs WisDOT all over the state. They are tightly integrated and they need their cooperation,” Bakke said.
Bakke suggested an argument could be made that this transfer lot is not integral to the railroad’s interstate operation. Instead, it is simply driven by profit. Car companies need to move their cars to the Cities and the railroad is trying to figure out how to make money off that.
That makes it a political issue and would require state and federal legislators to encourage WisDOT to oppose the project.
Speaking on behalf of the city, Darrow offered to host a community conversation to allow residents to express their concerns as well as ideas going forward.
“There is a quality of life here. It’s the fastest growing county in the state. It’s a project that’s going to be here for perhaps a hundred years. So we owe it to ourselves today to flip that script to say that there is something we can do. It starts by sharing what the concerns are for you as a property owner and for us as a city, and to model that in a leadership perspective that we are better together. That’s why we’re happy to be here and we’re happy to offer the support to assist,” Darrow said.
Resident Donna Cadenhead lives near the site and is collecting signatures from residents in the area -- over 200 as of the night of the meeting -- which she said she plans to forward to legislators, WisDOT, the railroad and whomever else will listen.
The consensus was for residents to contact their federal and state legislators to encourage them to apply pressure to WisDOT to reconsider the project.