Last weekend, music from a festival at the Somerset Amphitheater could be heard more than five miles away, across the St. Croix River, in May Township and the surrounding area.
It was intrusive but tolerable, an annual ruckus going back decades since the outdoor concert venue opened.
A couple days earlier, preserving the river’s silence and wildness was all the talk about 200 miles away.
Opening a loophole
At the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, state senators discussed legislation that would allow an event venue on the bluffs to circumvent zoning laws and a judge’s orders. It could mean a lot more noise and other intrusions on the river, from a lot closer than Float-Rite.
Neighbor Kim Ward reports that noise from events the facility has already hosted was heard by people living on the river more than seven miles downstream.
S.B. 309 was authored by Senator Shiela Harsdorf (R-River Falls). It seeks to let Lodge on the Croix operate as a for-profit business, despite longstanding regulations that restrict the types of activities along the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway.
Harsdorf said she is seeking to strike a balance between the river and business.
“Maintaining the scenic beauty of the St. Croix riverway is important and greatly valued by both those who live in and visit the region,” she wrote in a letter to legislators. “While this designation limits what can be done in the riverway, I do not believe it was intended to stop all economic development.”
A companion bill was introduced in the State Assembly by Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-St. Croix Falls), and approved by a committee in a 10-5 vote on August 2.
The Wisconsin law that designated the Lower Riverway in 1974 does in fact prohibit new businesses on the river banks.
Zoning standards described in the law sought to “guarantee the protection of the wild, scenic and recreational qualities of the river for present and future generations,” including the “prohibition of new residential, commercial and industrial uses… where such uses are inconsistent with the purposes of this section.”
Commercial activity was also prohibited by a permanent easement on the property, which taxpayers paid $160,000 for in 1992. It stated, “Except for on-going uses and activities provided for in (1) above, the land shall not be used for any new or additional mining, quarrying, sand and gravel removal, industrial or commercial activity whatsoever.”
The defenders of those protections were passionate. Read on for excerpts from their testimony.
Vocal local opposition
What follows are quotes from testimony and letters sent to the committee about the legislation.
The comments included resolutions and letters of opposition from almost all the local governments, including St. Croix County, the Town of Somerset, St. Joseph Township, and Hudson.
St. Croix County Board of Supervisors:
“Introduced into the Legislature without the knowledge or advisement by local officials in the towns and counties in whom the Lower St. Croix Riverway lies and in whom may be affected by the amendment.”
“The proposed legislation undermines the St. Croix Riverway Overlay District, especially the wild and scenic protections, which combined with the state rules under NR 118, provides numerous positive effects on water quality, fisheries, vegetation and wildlife.”
Town of Somerset:
“Will negatively impact the Town of Somerset’s rural character and impact the quality of life in the lower St. Croix Riverway by taking zoning control out of the local control.”
Deb Ryun, St. Croix River Association:
“Make no mistake, an event facility will have impact,” said Deb Ryun of the St. Croix River Association. “Light and sound pollution will affect the Kiwanis Boy Scout Camp and Dunrovin Retreat Center directly across the river, and river users.”
“What am I really afraid of? That this legislation isn’t really about Family First Farms, that it is about developing the federally designated wild and scenic river in our backyard. This is a test-case for all those that want to cash-in on the incredible wild and scenic values that have drawn people here for centuries, and if allowed, will destroy the very qualities that draw people here.”
Neighbors Kim and David Ward, who have lived in their home since 2002:
“I began to see building take place on the property without permission permits, or regard for the laws in place. When we communicated that we were completely against the idea of a wedding venue next door, they became hostile towards us.”
“The noise levels are deafening, not merely annoying. We cannot be outside, but we also cannot be inside our house without hearing the words to every song the band plays, as the set-up is outdoors. There is no real regard for any of us living within earshot of their place.”
Greg and Becky James, operators of Camp Clear-Waters, which was the previous use of the site, for 18 years:
“Our camp ministry reached mostly children, teens and adults from the Twin Cities area. There were no alcoholic beverages allowed on the property at any time. The campers experienced a fun-filled week of food, organized games, and time spent studying and learning about God’s Word in God’s creation.”
Ed Schachtner, Chair for the Town of Somerset:
“This legislation would reward the property owner for willingly breaking local laws and violating a recorded easement. This is akin to me getting a speeding ticket knowing full well I was speeding but then coming back to this legislature to get the speed limit increased after I got the ticket.”
Douglas R. Plourde, neighbor and Town Supervisor:
“There is nothing vague or confusing about the laws and rules. They just fully ignored them.”
Traci Libersky, owner of T-Buckets Hometown Bar:
“I own a business in Somerset Township, it is on commercial property which we made sure of before the purchase… I have no issue what so ever with new businesses as long as the procedure is done correctly and fairly, I do not believe that changing laws and enforcement issues to benefit one facility is fair or correct.”
Jay and Colleen Chambers, neighbors:
“We are very concerned with the operation of this business since the owners have blatantly disregarded local regulations when adding to the property as well as when hosting several events over the past several years without authority. We have heard from our home (with windows closed) bands, fireworks, and speeding cars well after 1:00 A.M.”
Matt Koester, 50+ year Somerset resident:
“My father Roy Kester owned a 160-acre farm in Somerset, with about 40 acres along the St. Croix River bluff line. When he retired, he wanted to build a small retirement home along the bluff of the property he owned and farmed for decades. When he applied for the proper permits he was told he couldn’t because of the river bluff restrictions. While he was disappointed, he did what any other law-abiding citizen would do. He complied with the law and built his retirement home elsewhere.”
David Ward, neighbor:
“Those who float, paddle, fish, live within the St. Croix Riverway or otherwise enjoy a wild and scenic river should be its greatest advocates but Wisconsin, Minnesota and Federal legislatures must also effectively communicate and legislate to maintain the national and regional significance of the river, and uphold the actions that are needed to protect its unique characteristics.”