ST. CROIX FALLS, Wis. — A developer set to build 12 homes on the bank of the St. Croix River calls the structures eco-friendly and sustainable, but the developer's vision has drawn cries of disapproval from locals who see it as an encroachment on the federally protected waterway.
The EcoRiver development by GreenHalo Builds of Stillwater doesn't yet have final approvals, but city officials have been moving ahead with necessary steps to get them there, including planning the needed infrastructure and considering a zoning change that would allow the homes to stand closer to the river than typically allowed.
"Nobody wants it," said resident Jerry Kingery, who along with about 20 other opponents appeared before the St. Croix Falls Plan Commission on Monday night as the body considered the developer's zoning change request. Kingery lives on North Hamilton Street near the proposed site of EcoRiver, and like many of his neighbors fears the project will bring traffic and construction noise while disrupting the scenic riverfront.
It's not just a local squabble: The project's location makes it the latest test in a long-running battle up and down the St. Croix Valley between developers and river stewards who want to see the waterway left as is.
The project would sit just upriver from Gaylord Nelson Park, named for the Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator who is considered the father of Earth Day. It was Nelson who, along with the late Vice President Walter Mondale, wrote the landmark 1968 federal legislation naming the St. Croix River a wild and scenic riverway, a designation meant to preserve wilderness and limit development.
The river's designation serves as a guide, but not a rule, for the city as it balances the forces of preservation and development, said St. Croix Falls City Administrator Joel West. "The city must balance these two elements as it provides services to its residents and development as a city," he wrote in a May 13 note to city officials.
GreenHalo Builds CEO John Sharkey said he sees the St. Croix Falls project as a set of highly efficient houses using sustainable and healthy products. The houses could be built "net-zero ready," capable of running on solar panels. Each building site would have 50 feet of riverfront, and the owners could apply to the Department of Natural Resources to install docks. After hearing opposition at Monday night's Plan Commission meeting, Sharkey said he's sympathetic to people who live nearby.
"I understand their view, but they're not seeing what we could make this: a really cool community of healthy, energy-efficient homes," he said.
The city bought all but one of the parcels from Northern States Power in 2016 for $346,000 . The power company operates a hydroelectric dam on the St. Croix River in St. Croix Falls, and has slowly been selling off land it's held in the area for decades. Under the terms of the purchase agreement signed with GreenHalo Builds, the city would sell all of the parcels for $375,000 if all approvals are granted.
Even though the city and Sharkey have been in talks since November, it wasn't until last week that Deb Ryun learned about it. As executive director of the Wild Rivers Conservancy, Ryun oversees a group dedicated to the preservation of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers.
"We can and should have been included in some of the discussion," said Ryun. She's since submitted a written comment in opposition to the plan, specifically to the zoning change that would allow the builder to set homes 50 feet from the river, rather than the usual 75 feet required by the city's residential building code. "It's pretty egregious," she said.
The project's site may include some wetlands. A nearby mobile home park and marina could also be affected.
The National Park Service in 2016 built its visitors center for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway just south of the proposed building site, and park superintendent Craig Hansen said he wants the city to move slowly as it considers the GreenHalo plan.
The project sits within the boundaries of the riverway, as described in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, Hansen wrote in a letter to city officials. An NPS preliminary review of the project found that it might degrade water quality and cultural, recreational and other values the act seeks to protect, he added.
On Monday night, residents put a sharper point on their opposition.
"It feels like some sneaky things are going on," said Pamela Brown. "It's one of the nation's most beautiful protected rivers in the United States. People from all over the world come here. We don't need someone coming here to put in a new sewer."
The St. Croix Falls Plan Commission voted Monday to pause for two weeks before making a recommendation on the zoning change GreenHalo requested. Its next meeting is set for May 31.