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Judge OKs 'nearness' of River Falls, annexed property

River Falls City Administrator Scot Simpson points to features on city-annexed land for St. Croix County Circuit Judge Michael Waterman (center) while town of Troy attorney Rory O'Sullivan looks on during a visit to the property as part of a civil trial. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

An annexed property is sufficiently near River Falls, a judge decided last week after a two-day trial that included a visit to the site.

The fate of the annexation hinged on St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Michael Waterman's interpretation of "nearness," as offered in legislative nomenclature — the ambiguity of which led to the trial. River Falls in 2016 annexed a parcel of Mann Valley land it owns in the town of Troy, even though the parcel didn't directly abut city lines. State law, however, allows for annexation of noncontiguous properties, provided the land being annexed is "near" the city.

Waterman concluded the city and the property were near enough to one another after being presented at trial with testimony that the land had been part of city expansion plans for decades. He also took the unusual step of visiting the land on the last day of the trial, where he was joined by attorneys from both sides and River Falls officials.

River Falls City Administrator Scot Simpson said he was pleased with Waterman's ruling.

"We remain committed to working with the best interests of current and future residents," he said.

The city was initially surprised by the lawsuit, so the trial's toll on resources and costs left an impact at City Hall, he said.

"That leaves a little bit of a wound," Simpson said, adding that while not yet tallied, the city's costs exceed $25,000. "Hopefully the court's decision allows us to turn the page here and open a new chapter of cooperation."

The decision leaves the annexation in place — and headed toward an acquisition on the city's border; the River Falls School District on Tuesday was finalizing a petition for the city to annex district-owned land that creates a bridge to the 220 noncontiguous acres that were at the center of the trial.

The district put the matter on hold pending the trial but district Superintendent Jamie Benson said the proverbial pause button has been released. He said the district is seeking assurances it will be able to use the land moving forward and that it won't be subject to special assessments.

"Now the ball is in the city's court," he said.

Simpson said two other neighboring property owners have also signed petitions for their land to be annexed. The process moving forward "will evolve" in the following months, he said.

Town of Troy Supervisor Ray Knapp was an early opponent of the Mann Valley annexation and said the trial's outcome left him disappointed.

"I don't think the city administrator was forthcoming with things that were happening in the steps they were taking to develop that property," Knapp said this week.

He said the trial's result now gives precedent for other cities in Wisconsin to do the same with noncontiguous annexations. Knapp said he doesn't fault Waterman — only the state law the judge was forced to interpret.

"The law is truly ambiguous," he said.

Trial touches on city's growth

Supporting the city's argument was land-use planner Michael Slavney, who testified as an expert.

He said maps depicting the parcel and its surrounding area "seemed to indicate nearness" to River Falls.

"It looks readily developable once the infrastructure becomes available," Slavney said, adding that city utilities can be easily extended to the parcel.

He said his confidence was boosted by upgrades to County Road U in the area. Cities tend to grow more toward metropolitan centers like Minneapolis-St. Paul. That's just what he said River Falls' growth is doing.

Town of Troy attorney Rory O'Sullivan attempted to suss out the extent of Slavney's research, which the expert said included a review of River Falls' growth since the 1930s. He said the city grew in a conventional concentric pattern until about 30 years ago when most of River Falls' growth began following the Highway 35 corridor.

Slavney called the Highway 35 interchange at Radio Road "a game changer" that should leave the 25 years of development outpacing the previous quarter-century — depending on the extension of sanitary sewer lines.

Asked by O'Sullivan how much he'd been paid by the city for his research hours and trial time, Slavney said it added up to about $25,000 on the last trial day.

City attorney Richard Yde recalled Simpson to the stand later that day, where he said plans for the area in question had been in the works for decades. That, Simpson said, included platting, sewer plans, internal feasibility planning and a wastewater master plan.

Simpson said the Radio Road interchange — which was funded in part by more than $3.5 million from city coffers — will be a main access point to County Road U for the Mann Valley property. He also testified that the area is poised for more growth, saying last year's boom doesn't appear to be an anomaly.

"This is really the pace of growth," Simpson said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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