Fortunes of Wisconsin landowners take turn with St. Croix River bridge

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES AND , ANDREW JOHNSON
  • Updated: May 8, 2012 - 7:52 AM

Bridge project has highway extension dissecting family farms.

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Edward Gillstrom stood in his hay field near where a highway interchange will be built in western Wisconsin. Many people in St. Croix County are outraged by the new bridge and what it will do to the land and the property values.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Standing in his western Wisconsin farm field on a recent morning, Ed Gillstrom pointed to where a new four-lane highway will wipe out some of the 95 acres where he grows hay for his cattle.

"To take and wreck anything this beautiful because Stillwater wants a bridge ...," said Gillstrom, his voice trailing into the wind. "That whole bridge project is about as crooked and political as anything can get. They've got all the politicians in the country telling me what's good for this land."

The Gillstrom family and a half-dozen other landowners in lightly populated St. Joseph Township now know with certainty that they will see, within four years, a major transformation of their rural way of life.

The 3.5-mile extension of Hwy. 64 will cut through land that's been farmed for generations, whisking 18,000 vehicles daily at freeway speeds to and from a new St. Croix River bridge that will stand more than two times taller than the Interstate 94 bridge six miles away.

Planning for the $676 million bridge project -- which also includes extensive road work on the Minnesota side -- moved into high gear this spring after Congress exempted bridge construction from the federal environmental law that protects the scenic river. President Obama signed the legislation into law.

The chair of the St. Joseph town board, Dan Gavin, said he's aware that some residents oppose the project, but many others support it. "People have been waiting 20, 30 years for this to happen," he said. "I think the town is prepared to address any issues as needed."

Purchase offers coming

In Eau Claire, Wis., transportation planners now are preparing a plat map that will show exact boundaries needed for the $40 million highway, which will include an interchange just east of Houlton Elementary School. Appraisals will follow.

When that's finished, Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) real estate specialists will arrive at landowners' homes with purchase offers on rights-of-way ranging from 150 to 500 feet wide.

"If they agree, they get their money in three to six weeks," said Ann Giese, one of the specialists. Landowners who dispute the offer have the right to seek a second appraisal, but the outcome is indisputable and arguments could lead to condemnation of land.

The highway, said WisDOT project leader Dave Solberg, is coming. Whether it also will bring a torrent of development -- as bridge opponents have said -- isn't as evident.

"I think it all gets down to zoning and what shape the economy is in," said Solberg, who a few years ago managed construction of the four-lane portion of Hwy. 64 that ran from New Richmond, Wis., west to within a few miles of the St. Croix. The new road will connect to those four lanes and then veer south through fields of hay, alfalfa, corn and soybeans to the new bridge.

"People don't realize that when you run a highway through 100 acres, what do you have when they split it up?" said Ed's brother, Elmer, who lives next door and sells real estate in St. Croix County. "Now you end up with smaller parcels you can't farm because it's split up in small strips. There's no consideration whatsoever given to that."

On a hill overlooking Ed Gillstrom's sprawling farm field, Keith Relyea talked about the coming changes. "It's a mess, a terrible mess," said Relyea, who's lived in an 1800s farmhouse since 1970. "Bridges are development projects. Unintended consequences are written all over this thing."

Relyea, like Ed Gillstrom, said the new highway -- which WisDOT calls an "expressway" -- will ruin prime farmland. Convenience stores and other businesses will pop up where crops now grow, Relyea predicted. The bridge project is intended for land developers, he said, despite the recent housing downturn.

"Why should I have my land destroyed when two miles down the road they'll develop land that will be worth millions?" Gillstrom asked. "To them it's all about money. To me it's all about being my home."

He's lived all of his 75 years on land his Swedish immigrant grandparents, Bertha and John Gyllstrom, bought in 1894. Gillstrom wanted to farm but couldn't afford it, so he worked 41 years at Andersen Windows in Bayport, crossing the Stillwater Lift Bridge every day. Reports of traffic congestion, he said, are exaggerated.

Now he raises beef cattle and grows hay and corn in his fields to feed as many as 400 cows and calves. Gillstrom isn't saying how much money he'll accept for his land -- or whether he'll strike a deal at all.

"If they're going to come and destroy it, I want what it's worth," he said.

Ellen Denzer, a St. Croix County senior planner, said no parcels in the path of the new highway are zoned for commercial use. She said she hasn't heard of any challenges to current zoning or any plans to build new businesses.

"Why would anybody relocate there until the population base is large enough to justify it?" she said.

In a review of county land records, no sales activity was evident on parcels affected by the bridge project.

Distaste for lift bridge

Solberg said most property owners who attended bridge meetings in St. Croix County expressed support for the connecting highway. "They don't like to be stuck with this lift bridge," he said.

Planners hope to open the new road for traffic in the fall of 2016 -- presuming the bridge is ready at that time. That means that 30 to 40 acres must be acquired by March 2014 to begin construction in the township by that fall, Solberg said.

Most of Gillstrom's neighbors didn't respond to interview requests, but he said half of them oppose the project and worry about losing their land.

"If anybody tells you everybody's happy with the Stillwater bridge deal, send them over to see me," he said.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 • Twitter: @stribgiles Andrew Johnson is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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  • Keith Relyea, of St. Joseph, Wis., owns a small farm with an antique house and land overlooking where a new highway interchange will be built to handle traffic from a new bridge over the St. Croix River and connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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