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Highway 12 project options rattle farmers

Sean Ryan

Eileen and James Dempsey’s 100-acre farm would be sliced down the middle by a proposed extension of Highway 12 between Elkhorn and Whitewater.

The couple rents the square-shaped farm to a neighbor who grows corn and soybeans. But the state has had on its planning maps since 1967 a proposed route for a Highway 12 extension that would cut through the middle of the farm and leave the Dempseys with two 50-acre triangles.

The triangle shapes, plus the inability to cross the four-lane highway to get from one field to another, would make the land much less attractive to farmers, Eileen Dempsey said.

“With farm equipment now, it’s big, you want a big field,” she said. “If you have a little, chopped-up field, people don’t want to come in there.”

The extension project would shorten the route between the Illinois border and Madison and reduce traffic congestion on the existing two-lane Highway 12, which is now more of a local street than a highway, going north from Elkhorn, then west toward Whitewater.

The extension plan, which would require a new right-of-way to create a straight route from Elkhorn to Whitewater, has stirred up residents in the small communities along the route. The estimated $116.7 million project budget includes $16.7 million to acquire 291 agricultural acres, 40 homes and one business.

But an optional plan is equally unpopular. Planners are considering simply widening Highway 12 to four lanes along its current route. The proposed $64.2 million for that option would require the state to buy 11 homes and eight businesses.

More than 600 people living and working along Highway 12 signed a petition against the widening plan, and some residents hired an attorney to oppose the option.

“We do not wish to give up any more property,” said Jeff Bluhm, executive director of Lutherdale Ministries, which owns a Bible camp bordering Highway 12. “That land is valuable to us, and we want to keep it.”

Eileen Dempsey said a big problem is the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has not completed detailed studies to identify who will be affected by either option. The proposed route for the Highway 12 extension through the Dempsey farm was drawn up more than 40 years ago and could be changed as WisDOT refines its proposal, she said.

“This is why we need the study,” she said, “because we don’t know. We’re getting all upset over something that might not happen.”

More than 100 residents attended a Thursday afternoon hearing in Elkhorn to discuss the two options. A local advisory committee to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission voted to oppose the widening option but told WisDOT to conduct planning studies on both options as soon as possible.

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