Osceola approves bluff development permits but legal questions loom large

Village board approves key parts of controversial proposal for apartments at former hospital site.




4 minute read

Osceola (Pam Broviak/Flickr)

The Osceola village board approved three key permits a developer needs to proceed with a new apartment building on the river bluff at a meeting Tuesday night. The votes came after months of debate and deliberation, and following numerous comments by citizens against the Osceola Bluffs project, while representatives of the local business community spoke in favor.

Despite the approvals, opponents say the fight is far from over. They cautioned the board of trustees that groups who defend public lands and wild rivers are watching the case closely.

The proposed development is at the former Osceola hospital site, which has been empty for 15 years. The building is now blighted and considered a community eyesore, while the village also seeks more housing to keep up with growth. Many of the proposal’s critics agreed with the need, but said the plan is seriously flawed — if not illegal.

“We are interested in intervening not to stop development, because everyone I think concedes that the hospital site is in need of development,” Bill Neumann, who represents the St. Croix Scenic Coalition, said. “Our concern is the visibility from the river.”

Based on the latest designs, the bulky building would be visible above the treeline from Osceola Landing and elsewhere on the river, and other parts of it would peek through, too.

Estimated sight lines. (Guaghan Co.)

Peter Gove, a long-time environmentalist and St. Croix River advocate who worked in Minnesota state government in 1972 and was part of Congressional efforts to designate the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway then, says the proposed development is exactly what Wild and Scenic Rivers legislation was intended to prevent.

“This may be the most appalling intrusion to river users, adjacent Wisconsin and Minnesota property owners, and the National Park Service’s Osceola Landing that I have observed in 50 years working to protect this river,” Gove wrote in a statement.

Despite the objections and warnings, the board largely favored the idea of replacing the hospital — windows broken, pipes frozen, gutted of copper — with a new residential development. They approved three conditional use permits: Allowing for ground disturbance of more than 10,000 square feet, residential occupancy on the first floor, and most controversially, a height up to 45 feet.

A petition drive opposing the project has collected more than 500 signatures in ink, and more than 469 online as of this writing.

“This tall building will forever change the landscape you currently enjoy, and will destroy the scenic beauty of the ‘St. Croix National Scenic Riverway’ that was enacted in 1968 to preserve and maintain the exceptional scenic, cultural, and natural characteristics of the Lower St. Croix Riverway,” the petition reads.

There are concerns not only about the four-story building’s effect on the Wild and Scenic St. Croix, but also its visual impact in historic downtown Osceola, increased traffic, and a financial subsidy.

Part of the village’s package of incentives for the developer, including changes to its zoning ordinances and the issuance of permits, is a large tax break. The tax proposal has raised concerns that the government will need to raise taxes on other residents to pay for infrastructure and maintenance to accommodate newcomers.

Though it was tabled at Tuesday’s meeting for further discussion, the most recent plan calls for $4.6 million in tax increment financing (TIF). This essentially exempts the project from paying a large portion of its property taxes for about 18 years after construction.

Osceola resident Mark Kozlak told the board that it was the old hospital’s owners who were responsible for letting the site degrade, and yet they would profit while the village’s other residents would pay. Meanwhile, the additional 200 residents would put a strain on municipal resources that are already spread thin.

“I have not heard one thing ever mentioned by anybody that’s an elected official that goes after these owners for this blight, and you’re coming in and you’re in our pockets and you’re asking us to pay so that this can be corrected,” Kozlak said at Tuesday’s meeting. “These owners are profiting from what you’re going to do. This is wrong.”

The latest documents available say the developer would be responsible for constructing a building that had an assessed value of at least $18.4 million, which is estimated to bring in about $1.1 million in rent per year. Until 2041, they would pay approximately $46,000 each year in property taxes.

Mock-up of Osceola Bluffs apartment building (Courtesy Gaughan Cos.)

The day after the village board approved the conditional use permits, the Historic Preservation Committee voted on a certificate of appropriateness for the proposed structure in the village’s historic downtown area. Project architect John Harriss told the committee the structure had been specifically designed for the site.

“We have considered historic street patterns and movement systems, adjacent structures, and indeed, the whole of downtown in our section of materials and massing,” Harriss wrote.

Nonetheless, the committee voted to deny the application, which opponents have said is simply not the right scale for the setting. The certificate of appropriateness is required, but the developer can appeal the decision to the village board.

Opponents could also appeal to higher levels, including the courts.

“Fortunately, this project is being closely watched by state and national conservation groups who support and have a track record in the courts of defending the National Park Service, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts and federal and state rules governing developments adjacent to the rivers protected by federal and state law,” long-time river advocate Gove wrote. “I am confident they will pursue administrative and legal options as the Village has knowingly violated the St. Croix Riverway rules.”


4 responses to “Osceola approves bluff development permits but legal questions loom large”

  1. JEFFRY LASAR Avatar

    The city of Osceola should own the building and create affordable housing for seniors.

    1. Valoree Avatar

      At what cost? And who runs and pays for operation,
      mainten-ance, manage- ment of the facility? Does Osceola have the depth to do that? Even farming out those particulars costs real money…

  2. Robert Clark Avatar
    Robert Clark

    This project is a terrible idea. If allowed it will haunt Osceola for years to come. The village council’s decision to go forward maybe legally slowed but wrong in every other way imaginable.

  3. David Odegard Avatar
    David Odegard

    The St Croix’s wild and scenic nature is slowly being eroded. “Death by 1,000 Cuts”
    Commercial development, agricultural waste, and homeowners seeking expansion of prominent structures are all slowly changing or threatening the river’s character.
    Fostering deeper and broader stewardship, such as the work being down by this publication, is the best antidote.


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Osceola approves bluff development permits but legal questions loom large