Four Wisconsin legislators want to help a Somerset family use its scenic blufftop property on the St. Croix River, which is protected by state and federal laws, for a wedding business.
The 284-acre property near Somerset, owned by Family First Farms, was intended as a “premier wedding destination” until a judge ruled last August that owner Jeremy Hansen and his family hadn’t complied with zoning codes.
Some of the land falls within the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, which is a national park. It’s also subject to laws that govern use of riverfront land under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Josh Hansen, Jeremy’s brother, said that hosting weddings on the property wouldn’t harm the St. Croix, one of 208 waterways nationwide under federal protection.
“It’s nothing but a benefit to the St. Croix,” said Josh Hansen, who spoke for his family.
State Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, introduced a bill in mid-June to loosen government control over the land, with coauthorship from two other Republicans, Rob Stafsholt of New Richmond and Shannon Zimmerman of River Falls. In the Senate, Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, sponsored a companion bill.
The bill stipulates that neither the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources nor St. Croix County can “prohibit the operation of an event facility and lodging establishment in existing buildings on a property located in the riverway that was historically used as a recreational campground.”
Flexibility for landowners
Jeremy Hansen bought the property in 2013 from the Fourth Baptist Church of Plymouth, formerly of Minneapolis, which had maintained the nonprofit Camp Clear-Waters there since 1962.
The family briefly advertised the property as Lodge on Croix soon after buying it and had planned to host weddings there for profit. But St. Croix County Circuit Judge Scott Needham determined that state law didn’t permit it.
Jarchow said the suit filed against Family First “was based on the law as it stands today” and that’s what his legislation seeks to change. He said the bill wasn’t written to specifically help the Hansens, but for owners of “all similar properties” who seek exemptions to laws that govern land use along the St. Croix.
“Anyone who visits this property would likely come to the same conclusion that I and others have, that other properties like this could be utilized for this kind of rural economic development,” he said. “It doesn’t disturb the river’s beauty and it provides jobs and a tax base.”
River advocates have kicked back, arguing that the issue is more complicated than that.
The St. Croix River Association “is very disappointed that this bill, aimed at serving the needs of a single landowner, should outweigh the needs of millions of visitors,” said Executive Director Deb Ryun.
She said that Jarchow’s bill would undermine federal protections of water quality and plants and animals.
Jarchow said he campaigned for office on a platform of rural economic development. He said his bill would give landowners the flexibility to develop new businesses.
“Unfortunately what happens with a lot of environmentalists is fearmongering,” said Jarchow, an attorney specializing in business development.
But Ryun said the bill could lead to more legislation intended to weaken laws that protect the St. Croix. She said that would endanger an annual multimillion-dollar recreation industry that includes outfitters, boaters, paddlers, campers and anglers who come to the river for its beauty and solitude.
Federal law requires Wisconsin to maintain a management plan for the St. Croix, she said, and “if this bill should pass, one would have to question Wisconsin’s commitment.”
Judge: Business not lawful
Needham, in ruling for the county last summer, determined there was no ambiguity in the law and that “defendants were well aware of the requirements of the zoning code but chose to disregard them.”
He also said that the county conclusively established that use of the property as a wedding business was illegal. The church’s use was grandfathered in because its ownership predated adoption of the county code in 1968, he wrote. However, that exemption ended when the land was sold to Family First, he said.
After the judge’s ruling, Hansen said, his family removed a deck and patio they had built, intended for weddings, that was not in compliance. He said they hosted a few family weddings on the property, including his sister’s.
“They were more than family events,” said Ellen Denzer, St. Croix County’s community development director. She added that “a massive platform they built right on the bluff” violated zoning regulations.
“When they’re bringing in people and advertising it on a website, that’s a business,” she said.
Hansen said housing developers have asked about buying the land, which contains six cabins, a bathhouse, a lodge and a home. The family hasn’t added buildings but made improvements to existing ones, he said, and doesn’t want to sell the land.
“That’s not our intention ultimately,” he said. “We’re big fisherman and hunters and we love that property.”
A portion of the property also is under a National Park Service scenic easement, which the agency purchased in 1992 to prevent shoreline development and ensure that commercial ventures can’t be seen from the river.
The legislation has been referred to the Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee in the Wisconsin Assembly, and to the Economic Development, Commerce and Local Government Committee in the Senate.