TOWN OF ST. JOSEPH, WIS. – Just a few miles east of the busy St. Croix River bridge construction, Ed Gillstrom sits in his farm kitchen, poring over financial documents that condemn his land for a new highway leading to the bridge.
“I made it very clear that I’m not trying to stop the bridge, but they’re taking a fine piece of land and I want to be compensated for it,” said Gillstrom, who was born on the land his Swedish immigrant grandparents bought in 1894. “The nicest piece of land in St. Croix County is carved up, it’s worthless.”
Work on the $676 million bridge project has proceeded faster on the Washington County side of the river, where land acquisitions were minimal. But in St. Joseph, negotiations will continue into late summer to buy land for a three-mile stretch of four-lane highway.
Seven properties needed for the road, most of them south of County Road E, have been purchased for $1.68 million. The Gillstrom land and one other property in St. Joseph were taken by condemnation, also known as eminent domain, for nearly $1 million.
According to Wisconsin Department of Transportation records, Gillstrom was paid $325,000 for 18.29 acres of farmland and a temporary easement where a highway interchange will be built. He said he was told of condemnation by registered mail despite his appeal to the agency for further negotiations. He had asked the agency to pay him damages for what he said was diminished value on his remaining land, which he had planned to sell for housing parcels for his retirement income.
“I can’t see that they tried even to be fair with me,” he said last week, describing how the condemned land took away the main road into his remaining property. “They took all the right of way on County Road E away, which is worth its weight in gold.”
‘Not cheating anybody’
Nobody should assume that landowners weren’t paid what they deserved, said Troy Staplemann, WisDOT’s technical services supervisor in Eau Claire. “We’re not trying to cheat anybody out of anything,” he said. “We want to give them a fair price for their property.”
Some landowners prefer condemnation because it offers a two-year window for appeal, Staplemann said. That wasn’t the case with Gillstrom, who said his land was taken against his will. The other landowner whose property was condemned, Donald Anderson, didn’t respond to an interview request.
“WisDOT makes every attempt to come to an agreement with the property owners,” Staplemann said. “Sometimes that does not work out and the eminent domain process must be exercised. Sometimes property owners might agree on the price, but prefer condemnation so they have a longer appeal time frame.”
However, “we’re appraising current land values,” Staplemann said, meaning the price won’t be renegotiated if land values appreciate over time.
WisDOT records show a government payment of $625,000 to Anderson for condemnation of land that includes grain bins and other buildings and easements. His land is closest to the river bluff where the bridge will crest. Amounts paid to other landowners — none taken by eminent domain — ranged from $51,000 to $275,000.
Gillstrom grows hay and corn on his land, but years ago he mapped out a plan to someday carve his 95 acres north of County Road E into 26 housing parcels. Last summer, he asked WisDOT to pay him the difference between the land’s residential and agricultural worth. Nobody, he said, will want to build houses next to a highway.
“It should be honored,” he said of his retirement plan. “It wasn’t a plan I had yesterday, it was a plan I had for my life.”
But Staplemann said Gillstrom’s land wasn’t recorded as a housing subdivision but agricultural land and the state couldn’t speculate on its potential worth. “I don’t think the Wisconsin taxpayers want us negotiating on what might happen in the future,” he said.
All of the WisDOT acquisitions to date open the way for Hwy. 64 construction from the bridge to County Road E, which begins March 10. To buy right of way for the second leg of highway construction, from County Road E northeast to the existing four-end highway near Somerset, WisDOT is negotiating on 26 parcels of land. Appraisals are being done on 22 of those parcels, no action has been taken on four others, and none of the land has been acquired, said Christine Ouellette, WisDOT’s regional communications manager.
WisDOT wants to buy all the land by Aug. 1, she said.
On the Washington County side of the project, some new roads have opened in Oak Park Heights, more work will begin this year on outdated Hwy. 36 frontage roads and intersections, and construction of the superstructure portion of the bridge. In-river piers to support the superstructure were built last year.
Other activity in Oak Park Heights, in St. Joseph, a rural town of 3,800 residents, will include a pedestrian loop trail negotiated as part of the bridge project. It will cross both the new bridge and the Stillwater Lift Bridge, which will be closed to vehicle traffic in 2016.