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St. Croix Falls advances plan to build 12 houses on St. Croix riverfront

1 June 2022

A plan to build 12 houses on the St. Croix River was advanced Tuesday by the St. Croix Falls Plan Commission, which voted 5-1 to recommend the project to the City Council.

The project from Stillwater-based developer GreenHalo Builds would break with federal protections established by the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the 1968 law that urges local municipalities to preserve and protect the natural character of rivers under its purview, including the St. Croix.

The act serves as a guide, but not a rule, and city officials including Mayor Kirk Anderson have argued that the city purchased the site in 2016 with the intent to open it for development.

“This is a 600-foot shoreline with a marina to one side and to the north there’s existing houses,” Anderson said during Tuesday night’s meeting. “… It is within the city limits and is designated as developable.”

Commission member Debra Kravig cast the only vote in opposition, urging the commission to consider placing the riverfront site into conservancy to protect the wildflowers, wetlands and pristine natural history of the 2.7-acre site.

“It’s just very unique and once that’s developed it’s gone and we’ll never get it back,” she said.

The developer’s plan requires a zoning change to allow for construction of 12 homes on six city lots. The homes would have a minimum floor area of 900 square feet, with shorter setbacks than are typical for residential homes, allowing the structures to stand as close as 10 feet to each other.

River preservationists and local residents who strongly oppose the plan have crowded the Plan Commission’s last three meetings, saying the new houses aren’t wanted. Some have pointed to the city’s nickname, the “Gateway to the Wild and Scenic River,” and others to its connection to former Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson, who was one of the authors of the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers act.

The developer originally called for setting the houses 50 feet from the river, but the version of the plan approved on Tuesday pushes all but three of the proposed houses back to 75 feet.

Kravig said the wetlands issue will require further modifications to the plan, pointing to a city code that requires a 75-foot setback from wetlands. That might require two or three fewer houses in the plan, she said. The city also needs to consider how it would react if some of the new houses are set up as short-term vacation rentals, Kravig said. She also asked why the city isn’t pushing development to other open areas away from the river.

“Protecting things that make us unique and wonderful is more important than 12 houses at this time,” she said.

City Administrator Joel West said the plan could be updated to address the wetlands setback requirement, short-term vacation rentals, and to identify any creeks running through the area.

Anderson, in an e-mail Wednesday, said he supports the project but wants to see it vetted by the City Council. “We continue to do our due diligence to thoroughly review the questions raised related to the proposed project,” he wrote.

The City Council will take up the plan and the developer’s zoning change request at its June 13 meeting.

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