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River Falls, town of Troy at odds over annexation

A legal battle is underway in St. Croix County over a piece of farmland annexed by River Falls that town of Troy officials argue was an illegal action.

The town filed a lawsuit in September alleging the annexation of 292 acres of land, which doesn’t share a border with River Falls, violated regulations requiring multiple jurisdictions to sign off on zoning changes.

But town Supervisor Ray Knapp said earlier this month the issue goes beyond the technicalities of zoning policies.

He said neighbors of the annexed site — a fertile plot of farmland in the Mann Valley — are beside themselves.

“In our wildest imaginations, we never thought we’d be next to an industrial park,” Knapp said he’s been told.

Also roiling the town is the concern that the annexed parcel doesn’t share a border with River Falls. Knapp said it’s an island of property that doesn’t come within 1,000 feet of the city’s boundary.

“It’s not contiguous,” he said. “That's an illegal action in itself.”

What’s more, he said River Falls officials didn’t give word of the annexation until just before the July 26 City Council meeting that approved the action. Knapp said the town clerk looked, but couldn’t find any email or correspondence from the city about a possible annexation in advance of the action.

“The town chair received a phone call from the city administrator, shortly before July 25, 2016, telling the town chair of the city’s plans for the property in dispute,” according to the civil complaint filed in the case.

The city denies that claim, according to court records.

River Falls City Administrator Scot Simpson said there’s a whole lot more to the story.

“The city isn’t taking any land,” he said last week.

Simpson clarified that annexations are initiated by property owners — not cities. He noted, however, that the city was the owner of the land in question.

In this case, “we’re approaching ourselves,” he said.

According to city records, River Falls bought the Mann Valley property in two transactions — one acquisition of 85 acres in June 2011 and a second one two years later totaling 325 acres.

The cost was about $2.6 million, Simpson said.

Also involved in the issue is the River Falls School District, which approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the city. The document calls for the city to annex 40 acres of property in the Mann Valley.

Knapp said that district-owned parcel would bridge the 292 acres to the city, thus making it contiguous to the city.

According to a copy of the MOU, the district would be able to continue using the property indefinitely for agricultural purposes.

Simpson said the School Board approved the MOU in October and that River Falls City Council will consider approving the document in January.

He said the issue is being handled more delicately now that litigation is involved.

“We’re being cautious about putting the school district in a dispute between neighbors,” he said. “But we haven’t sent anything formally to the School Board indicating it’s on hold.”

‘Prime’ farmland

Simpson said the 292 acres presented attractive features to the city for possible development: flat topography, access to city utilities and transportation corridors.

At the time of the acquisitions, he said the city saw the land as a good opportunity for possible “large-lot commercial” property.

“This was identified as a potential for the future,” Simpson said.

At least some of that is on the way to becoming reality.

After the annexation, about 5 acres of the land was rezoned to the industrial classification. That land was then sold to Land O’ Lakes subsidiary WinField Solutions, which plans to construct a 15,000 square-foot farm support facility there.

But that’s 5 acres of nearly 300. So what else does River Falls have in mind?

Nothing right now, Simpson said.

But that hasn’t assuaged concerns by Knapp and others.

According to the lawsuit, all 292 acres fell under the zoning jurisdiction of the extraterritorial zoning ordinance (ETZO). The suit states that terms of the ETZO require “at least one representative of the town serving on the Joint Extraterritorial Zoning Committee” for rezonings to be effective.

“We don’t think it was legal,” Knapp said.

The 5 acres of WinField land were zoned as exclusively agricultural, but were rezoned by River Falls to industrial, which the suit argues “authorizes land use contrary to town zoning regulations in the ETZO …”

The city filed a written response denying the zoning-related allegations. Simpson said he’d let the legal response speak for itself on that matter since it’s in litigation.

But the town of Troy hasn’t been the only entity to cry foul over the issue.

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Ben Brancel sent a letter Oct. 21 to River Falls Mayor Dan Toland. In the letter, Brancel cites concerns with the annexation.

“The preservation of our state’s farmland resources is critical,” the letter states. “As the city decides what to do with this land, I want to urge you to consider protecting it from conversion to nonagricultural use.”

Brancel said about half of the 292 acres falls under an updated St. Croix County farmland preservation plan calling for lands to stay in agricultural use for the next 15 years. The Mann Valley property, the secretary wrote, is “prime farmland.”

“By honoring the designation that the county made through developing its farmland plan, you will allow the land to continue to be available for future generations of farmers,” the letter concludes.

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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