In a win for river preservationists, St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge R. Michael Waterman ruled Thursday in favor of plaintiffs who said some elements of a four-story, mixed-use housing project slated to rise on a city block in downtown Hudson, Wis., violated longstanding St. Croix River protections.

The ruling in favor of a lawsuit brought by the Wild Rivers Conservancy and several other co-plaintiffs reverses five variances granted by the Hudson Zoning Board of Appeals. Those variances would have allowed property owner Ron Gagnon to build higher than allowed by rules created for the St. Croix Wild and Scenic Riverway; the other variances would have allowed the project to exceed rules on slope preservation, fill, and setbacks.

"I'm thrilled with the legal ruling handed down today by Judge Waterman," said Deb Ryun, executive director of the Wild Rivers Conservancy. "As we've said in the past, we are not anti-development, but municipalities should follow the laws and ordinances designed to maintain the St. Croix's wild and scenic values."

The plans for the project at 307 to 321 2nd St. and 100 Commercial St. call for sidewalk-level commercial space, a fitness center, underground parking for 143 vehicles, and 109 housing units. The building would take up the city block bordered by 2nd, Commercial, 1st and Wisconsin streets.

The Zoning Board of Appeals initially denied a height variance to allow the project to rise 57 feet — 12 feet higher than allowed within the riverway zone designated by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1972, which created the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. That zone extends west to the river from Hudson's Second Street, including the site for Gagnon's project. The board then reconvened in July, reversed its decision on the building's height and approved other project variances.

Waterman said in his ruling that state law requires DNR approval of zoning variances within the riverway zone. The DNR didn't consent to the variances, and, in fact, recommended that the board deny them, Waterman wrote. The board's approval of those three variances were a "clear and obvious error," he wrote.

Waterman also reversed two variances that didn't require DNR approval — the need for flood elevation fill and a 25-foot rear yard setback — saying the zoning board of appeals granted them on a hardship basis when no hardship exists.

"Our team is evaluating the impact of this ruling on our proposed development, as well as its implications on the future of downtown Hudson development broadly," said the project's developer Ari Parritz of Reuter Walton. "We remain committed to working with the city and other interested parties to address the under supply of high quality, context sensitive, resilient housing in downtown Hudson."

"This decision re-affirms established standards for responsible development within the Lower St. Croix Scenic Riverway," the plaintiff's attorney, Einar Hanson, said Friday. "We are grateful for Judge Waterman's thoughtful consideration of this matter."

Attorneys for the Zoning Board of Appeals said the board plans to meet in closed session to review the judge's ruling.

In a statement, attorney Nicholas Vivian said the judge's ruling that the Board of Appeals lacks the authority to grant the type of variances considered in the case is "very different from the manner in which the DNR has historically participated in Riverway variance applications and creates a new threshold for applicants," adding that the city "appreciates the Court's consideration in clarifying this Riverway standard."