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Citizens group sues, saying annexation illegal

Sean Ryan
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The Highway J Citizens Group on Friday sued the village of Richfield for annexing a business park because the group is worried the move will lead to more development.

Richfield annexed the Helsan Business Park in November, and the Highway J group argues the move violates state law because it runs counter to the village’s smart-growth plan, which doesn’t plan for annexations, in part because doing so would create an irregular border. The 46-acre business park is connected to Richfield only via Cabela Way, creating a “balloon-on-a-string” shape.

The Highway J organization is worried the move may be followed by more annexations and developments, said Jeff Gonyo, a member of the Highway J steering committee. The town of Polk forbids subdividing property into lots smaller than five acres, but Richfield’s zoning laws allow for much denser development, Gonyo said.

“This would be like throwing gasoline on a fire as far as development goes,” he said.

The Highway J group, which has 15,000 members throughout Wisconsin, was founded about 10 years ago to stop the expansion of County Highway J in Washington County and has since become more active in land-use decisions in the Polk and Richfield area.

Richfield Village Administrator Toby Cotter said resident participation in government is good, but the Highway J group may be taking things too far. The annexation lawsuit is the second the group has filed against Richfield.

“Obviously, like any lawsuit, we have to defend ourselves, as frivolous as they (lawsuits) may be,” Cotter said. “I’m just wondering what the next thing will be. Is it the color of the flowers that we will be planting this spring?”

Highway J’s first lawsuit against Richfield argues the village broke state law by adopting a resolution supporting a higher speed limit on Highway 164. The case is pending in Washington County Circuit Court; a hearing is scheduled for April 24.

The Helsan Business Park requested annexation into Richfield because Polk refused to plow or maintain Cabela Way, which leads to the property, and the streets within the park. Polk and the park’s developer, Helsan Development Co., Germantown, agreed the town would not take ownership of the business park roads in 1991 when the park was built, said Polk Town Chairman Willard Heppe. There are 28 privately-owned roads in Polk, he said, because the town doesn’t have the staff or money to maintain them.

“The town is really not in a position to have the roads plowed out so fast,” Heppe said. “Our township is shrinking; we don’t really have a township anymore.”

Polk is in danger of being swallowed up by its six neighboring municipalities and thereby losing its low property taxes and rural character, Heppe said. It can limit development with its five-acre minimum lot size rule, but the annexed land obviously loses that limit on development.

“We don’t zone anything for high-density housing,” said Heppe, who will retire from being town chairman in one month. “I’ve been here 40 years and I think our constituents like the five-acres (rule), and, if they didn’t like it, I think I would’ve been voted out of this office 35 years ago.”

Cotter said Richfield is not planning to annex more land from Polk, adding the village only annexed the Helsan Business Park at the request of its businesses.

“The village is extremely focused and wants to do what’s best for all of our residents and all of our taxpayers,” Cotter said. “These types of lawsuits are not going to prevent us from doing what’s right.”

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