Judge rules against Osceola Bluffs development over visual impact to river

Court finds officials based approval on bad information.

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3 minute read

Polk County Justice Center (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

A Polk County Circuit Court judge has reversed the approval of a controversial development proposal on the river bluff in Osceola. Judge Daniel Tolan issued his decision yesterday, rejecting the Osceola Bluffs project over elected officials’ failures to properly consider its height and visual impact.

The judge ruled in favor of the village on one issue: the board’s decision to overrule its own Heritage Preservation Commission and deem the building design as appropriate for the village. Tolan found it had followed the correct procedures.

The Osceola Village Board approved the proposal last summer, but a lawsuit by local residents and the St. Croix Scenic Coalition challenged the decision, saying the board didn’t have enough information to make the decision, and that the building would be too visible from the river.

“My clients appreciate the time and effort that the Judge spent reviewing the record and writing his thorough and well-reasoned decision,” plaintiffs’ attorney James Johnson told St. Croix 360. “His decision clearly emphasizes the need to preserve our National Scenic Riverway by following NR118 and the laws designed to protect views from the St. Croix River.”

The judge agreed that the building would likely be taller and more visually conspicuous than the board believed at the time of approval, and that the developer had not provided sufficient evidence otherwise.

The crux of the finding is that the board relied on drone footage provided by the developer to assess its visibility from the river, and that the footage did not truly represent the building’s visual impact.

“The final site plans could not have reasonably been approved, as the drone footage provided an inaccurate visual representation of the view of the river,” Tolan wrote.

Illustration of Osceola Bluffs development showing height and relation to river. (Gaughan Cos.)

Because of how the developer calculated the average ground elevation, and because of plans to add fill to the site before construction, the judge found the drone footage showed heights six to 13 feet lower than reality. He also included quotes from board members when they were discussing the permits that indicated the footage was a big part of what convinced them the proposal wouldn’t be visually conspicuous.

“You can see it with your own two eyes,” said council member Bruce Gilliland at the July 13, 2013 meeting. “You can’t see the river from 45 feet, which means you won’t see the building from the river, at least the top of it won’t stick out.”

Meanwhile, the only photograph provided of the view of the bluff from the river was taken directly in front of the site, rather than upstream and downstream.

The Osceola Bluffs building, proposed by Forest Lake, Minnesota-based Gaughan Companies, would be constructed on the site of the former hospital in Osceola. The site has fallen into disrepair over the past several years of vacancy and abandonment, and the proposed redevelopment was welcomed by many community members. Johnson said the plaintiffs share that goal.

“My clients have been supportive of responsible development at this site from the beginning. They look forward to working with the Village and developers to build a responsible structure that meets Village, state and federal laws and codes.”

The village of Osceola has the option to appeal the ruling to the state court of appeals. It has not yet announced any plans.


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One response to “Judge rules against Osceola Bluffs development over visual impact to river”

  1. Terry doyle Avatar
    Terry doyle

    What is going to happen now?