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Local control debate lingers over proposed zoning legislation

St. Croix County supervisors passed a resolution Aug. 1 in opposition of a bill that would allow a former Bible camp along the Lower St. Croix River to be used as a wedding and events center. Residents who spoke at public comment worry the commercial use would disrupt the secluded area, but legislators who authored the bill say it will enhance property rights. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia.

A St. Croix County resolution condemning legislation that would allow a former Bible camp along the county's namesake river to be converted into a wedding and events center is headed to Wisconsin lawmakers.

County supervisors voted 14-2 in favor of the resolution at the Aug. 1 county board meeting, with Supervisors Bob Long and Tom Coulter lodging the only 'no' votes.

Current state law requires Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approval before counties grant variances to county zoning rules— which, in St. Croix County, prohibit commercial development along the Lower St. Croix River bluffs.

PREVIOUSLY: Former campground at center of bluff line debate

The bill introduced last month would eliminate that requirement.

Family First Farms, the Wyoming, Minn.-based company, recently lost a court battle with the county over whether the company could use the property it bought in Somerset for commercial purposes.

The bill's author, Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, has asserted that his bill would protect the rights of nearby property owners.

Among the bill's sponsors are state Reps. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls.

Since its introduction, debate arose about whether the bill undermines or enhances local control.

Vocal opponents

About a dozen residents of New Richmond and surrounding communities voiced unanimous opposition to the bill during public comments at the Aug. 1 meeting.

Among them was Tom Spaniol, who chairs the town board for St. Joseph, just south of New Richmond.

Spaniol said the bill, if passed, could upend more than two years' of work on the town's comprehensive plan, which included three attached plans for natural resource inventory, outdoor recreation, lake management and parks and trails.

"...Each had multiple public hearings, multiple open houses," he said. "We involved as many people as we possibly could to look at the types of comprehensive planning we wanted to have in our town for the next 20 years. This bill kind of flies right in the face of that."

Kim Ward, who moved from the Twin Cities to the secluded area with her husband in 2002, said the area is at times so peaceful, they can hear fish jumping in the river.

"We can hear every animal in its environment doing its thing in the evening," she said. "It's amazing. My husband and I have always said it's a privilege to live in their backyard."

However, she worries that the property's use as an event center would drive up traffic, noise and drunk driving.The live music performed there, she said, keeps her up at night.

"The outdoor bands play until past midnight," she said. "Every single time I've had to call the police. I have to have my door, windows shut, turn on my air conditioning and sit in the basement."

Local control

County Supervisor Roy Sjoberg urged colleagues who opposed the resolution to "examine your duty of loyalty to this county."

"This county stands for local control, especially for zoning of our shorelands and to protect our Wild and Scenic River Act," he said.

But Supervisor Bob Long, one of two on the County Board to vote against the resolution, questioned whether the bill disrupts or bulks up local control.

County Corporation Counsel Scott Cox said he believed the effects of the bill wouldn't be as drastic as some supervisors and residents worried.

"The County still has to conform with requirements; it doesn't need pre-approved consent from DNR," he said. "I would say that maybe there's fewer hoops to jump through, but it doesn't modify the regulations except for the campground into wedding events center."

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