Stepping over a log laying on the ground, my foot lands in the soil and keeps going. It pushes several inches down into dark dirt, saturated with water, home to plants that only grow in such a wet spot. It’s dim and shady on the forest floor, as spring’s fresh leaves compete for sunshine and let little light through. Nearby rills and rivulets run through the woods toward the St. Croix River, which is some 50 feet ahead.
Fortunately, I’m wearing waterproof boots, and I find my way to slightly higher ground. Birds flutter through the branches overhead while my guides lead me on a tour of this property, which could soon be home to a dozen houses if a deal between the city of St. Croix Falls and a Stillwater developer is approved. On Tuesday this week, a city commission passed a recommendation to re-zone the land to allow twice the houses and smaller setbacks than usual. The city council will vote on it June 13, with other needed approvals ahead.
I was invited to see the land for myself by neighbors Rhonda and Jerry Kingery and residents of the Destinations Mobile Home Park, whose residents would be most affected by the development. The trailer park is about 100 feet from the river, with these wet woods in between. The land, once owned by Xcel Energy, was sold to the city in 2016.
If the proposed development by Green Halo goes through, the city would sell these woods and a dozen houses would be built between the mobile home park and the river.
The healthy hardwood forest criss-crossed with wetlands and spring creeks has been a cherished refuge for generations in the neighborhood. At river’s edge, water seeps from the banks under overhanging tree limbs. It’s where people come to walk the deer trails or watch the sunset, to fish the river, or watch bald eagles on a nest across the river.
City officials announced in February they had put together a purchase agreement with Green Halo that would sell about 600 feet of wooded riverfront to the company, which would build what are advertised as “cabins” and “second homes.” The sale is contingent on the developer and city agreeing on a proposal, and permits from other agencies, as well. Re-zoning the land from residential to “planned development” allows tighter density.
Residents of Destinations Mobile Home Park say it would basically be like building a wall between their homes and the river. The tightly-packed new houses that could be up to 35-feet high would close off the site. The city retains right-of ways through the area — in some places where the trailer park has long maintained its own roads, and in some places where homes have crossed parcel lines. Now, roads to access the new development are planned right next to some trailers, and in some cases would likely force residents to remove decks and porches.
These neighbors say they feel ignored, like “collateral damage,” as the proposal moves forward. They clearly feel unheard and unseen. There is little affordable housing in the city, with residents reporting ratty rentals elsewhere. The trailer park has long provided homes for residents of limited means, who can enjoy life in a peaceful and wooded setting a short walk from the river.
Maps circulated with the proposed development show a new road going right through what’s now the trailer park’s community garden, and then Bonnie Sawyer’s yard. Sawyer is a St. Croix Falls native, whose father, husband, and father-in-law all worked for Northern States Power, which owned the hydroelectric dam. She moved to the park in 2013 because it was a great option compared to other housing in her hometown. Approving the development would likely force her to tear down parts of her house, and deal with traffic a few feet from her walls. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen.
“What do you do with your home when you don’t know its future?” she says. “Nobody has told me anything.”
The neighbors also say people from all over town and elsewhere come to the site sometimes, enjoying the beautiful and quiet stretch of shoreline. And thousands pass in boats each year, seeking the wild scenery that defines the upper St. Croix. This stretch of shoreline is a lush forest that provides the sense of escaping civilization.
Green Halo’s “EcoRiver” development would be the most significant new construction on the upper St. Croix River in memory. While it is in the designated National Scenic Riverway, these parcels in a zoned municipality are exempt from federal protection. The National Park Service still says the project is inappropriate.
“[T]his proposed project has the potential to degrade the free-flowing condition, water quality, aquatic, cultural, recreation, riparian, and/or scenic-aesthetic values for which the Riverway was designated to protect under the [Wild and Scenic Rivers Act] of 1968,” superintendent Craig Hansen wrote to the city in May. “Specifically, but not comprehensively, the project has the potential to introduce residential homes and impervious surfaces where none currently exist; increase the density of homes allowed and reduce setbacks via zoning; build in a floodplain and identified wetland areas; impact the 30 state listed species within a two-mile buffer of the project area; and remove stabilized trees from the riparian corridor.”
Not only neighbors but people throughout the region are paying attention. For many, the plan seems to fly in the face of the goal of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, championed by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson — whose name is on a city park a few blocks away that celebrates his efforts to protect the St. Croix.
Creeks Three small creeks pass through the development site, trickling through the muddy ground. They spring from the bluff above, and the whole slope to the St. Croix is essentially waterlogged. Where North Hamilton Street runs, the elevated roadbed dams the spring flow coming down the hill, creating marshes and pools as the water finds its way to a culvert.
The issue of the wet forest where the development is proposed is a key sticking point. It’s a wonderful woodland, but houses, driveways, and yards will sit on the soft ground and redirect runoff into the river.
Much of the property is designated as floodplain by FEMA, defined as “susceptible to being inundated by floodwaters from any source.” Maps of known “hydric” soils, where water saturation reduces oxygen levels to prevent most plant growth, also indicate a similar section of the land could be considered protected wetlands.
West, the manager of the mobile home community for the past three decades, says sinkholes regularly develop in the area. She reported that, last year, she brought in 16 cubic yards of soil to fill holes.
In a May memo to the city council, city administrator Joel West wrote that the buildable areas in three of the proposed lots would be mostly or entirely in floodplain, while three other lots would have a small portion in the floodplain. St. Croix Falls allows building in the floodplain as long as the house’s lowest level is one foot or more above the floodplain elevation.
The city has also identified two wetlands in the proposed development. No construction or filling would be allowed in those wetlands. City code also requires a 75-foot buffer around wetlands, but West wrote that “it appears that this may be for wetlands that are 5 acres or larger.”
Walking through the woods and the neighborhood, it’s clearly like many areas along the St. Croix: a seeping valley that slowly feeds the river. The current surface seems as permanent as a sandbar.
Numerous residents, including the previous mayor, are concerned the dwellings would not even be occupied by anyone with attachments to the area. The proposal has a lot in common with other places that are seeing a rise in development dedicated to short-term rentals, such as Airbnb and VRBO.
Former St. Croix Falls mayor Brian Blesi wrote to the city last month about the issue. Blesi was mayor in 2016 when the city purchased the property from Xcel ,and wrote to current officials with his thoughts about the proposal. He said he supported the development, believing it will bring in new residents and provide an economic boost. Along with planned road repairs and improvements, the former mayor said it would have a “refreshing effect” on the whole street. But he has one concern, shared by many neighbors.
“Short term rental of these properties, while an attractive investment vehicle, creates issues such as increased traffic at all hours, inadequate parking, more watercraft than can be docked, noise, late night celebration, etc.,” Blesi wrote. “In my view, short-term rental of these new units will negatively impact neighboring properties and Destinations Mobile Home Park (DMHP) residents.”
He suggested the council require minimum rental lengths of six months, to accommodate snowbirds, and enact other policies to prevent short term rentals. The trailer park already has a protective policy in place: West says all the mobile homes must be occupied by their owners, not rented out.
Former mayor Blesi also backed up what current mayor Kirk Anderson has said, that such a development was part of the plan when the city bought the land. St. Croix 360 contacted Anderson seeking comment for this story but has not received a response.
“[The property] was purchased at the time with the express purpose of leveraging the property for future development,” Anderson said at a meeting in May.
Blesi’s latest letter agreed, writing that a “development such as this was envisioned” when the city acquired the property six years ago.
When the city acquired the property, Blesi wrote to the trailer park’s residents to inform them about the purchase, saying he was planning community meetings to gather input. He also told them why the city had decided to buy from Xcel. Park manager Lisa West provided the 2016 letter to St. Croix 360.
“The primary reason for the City to acquire this parcel at this time is to prevent the disruption to the neighborhood that would occur had Xcel sold the property to multiple private parties (up to 16) who would use the lots for recreation,” Blesi wrote in November 2016. “Visualize summer weekends with 30+ vehicles, 16 camp fires, portable toilets, tents, boats pulled up on banks.”
He went on to write that the second reason for acquiring the land was for “long range improvement planning,” explaining that meant anywhere from five to 20 years. He said it could bring new “new drives, utilities, and arranged to take full advantage of the riverfront.” New development was not mentioned in the letter, nor the city eventually re-selling the land.
The river runs
Emerging from the forest, I step down the bank to the rocky river shoreline. The water is low because Xcel is drawing down the flowage to support repairs of the dam from recent floods. The St. Croix is as lovely as ever, flowing steadily and gently south as it has for some 10,000 years.
The opposite shoreline is also densely wooded. Little of humanity can be seen. This is the south end of what is called the “Indianhead Flowage,” a popular spot for fishing and other fun. The Lions Parks just upstream on either side of the river offer boat access to 413 acres of relatively flat water and National Park campsites.
In early summer, this liquid landscape makes for a wild and fertile feeling. Life bursts forth in the river and the forest.
Pausing to enjoy the peace and quiet, the feeling of natural grace, I imagine chainsaws and bulldozers running over the site. I imagine tall fences and “no trespassing” signs. Twelve new docks jutting into the water. I imagine the neighbors cut off from a beloved place and many memories.
The St. Croix Falls city council will consider the re-zoning request at its next meeting, June 13, from 7 to 9 p.m. at City Hall, 710 Hwy 35, St. Croix Falls, WI.
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