The members of the St. Germain town board took no action at its meeting last week about town roads for snowmobile use.
Town Chairman Walter Camp said the item had been placed on the agenda because Supervisor Alan Albee had made the request.
The reason for the request was because construction had begun the previous Friday on what’s been a controversial trail crossing over State Highway 155 a few miles outside St. Germain.
The crossing connects with a portion of a trail that would be on the property of St. Germain town clerk Tom Martens and his wife, Karen.
No action taken by the town board at that meeting stopped a process that had been begun by Vilas County Supervisor Jim Behling to have a special county board meeting about the crossing.
The inaction also meant the item wouldn’t make it to the Jan. 28 regular meeting agenda of the Vilas County board.
The matter goes back to 2011, when two sites were being considered for the crossing, the one across the highway from the Martens’ property, known as the Sixteen Road crossing, and another crossing at the junction of Hwy. 155 and Lost Lake Road, about 1,000 feet to the north.
Of the two, the Lost Lake Road location had been deemed the safest by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation though both sites met the minimum standards for a snowmobile crossing.
The Lost Lake Road crossing, however, was the recommended site presented the county by an engineering firm it had hired to look into the issue, MSA Professional Services of Rhinelander.
To make the Lost Lake Road location work for the crossing, the county would have had to deal with a stretch of wetlands, a costly process that would end up including the need for permits from the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Vilas County Trail Safety Committee voted at a meeting in August 2012 – despite the findings of the state and MSA – to go with the Sixteen Road crossing.
Two months later, the Martens began a long legal process by suing Vilas County.
Over the course of the next several months, the Martens – contending the right of way being used for the trail on their property was never intended for snowmobile traffic – were denied in court.
One last hope for them disappeared when the Wisconsin Supreme Court wouldn’t hear the matter because it hadn’t been filed in a timely manner.
With the legal matters out of the way, work on the crossing could begin.
Jan. 13 St. Germain meeting
With a late addition to the meeting agenda of town roads for snowmobile use, several supporters of the Sixteen Road crossing of Hwy. 155 attended.
For most of the meeting, there were people standing out in the hallway waiting for the town board to get to the item.
Finally, Camp recognized Vilas County Supervisor Mark Rogacki.
“Is there anything you would like to inform the St. Germain town board of at the county level that we should be aware of?” he asked.
Rogacki said he came to the meeting to speak about the trail crossing issue but went over a couple of issues with which the county is dealing, such as its $1.5 million deficit.
“We appear to be politically unable to come to grips with that,” he said. “It will be a priority for me in the next budget cycle.”
After briefly summarizing what his position was regarding the county deficit, Rogacki quickly moved to the trail crossing issue.
“OK, let’s talk about the snowmobile trail,” he said. “The controversy of the decade.”
Rogacki said when it was first brought up, it was framed as a property rights issue.
“That’s a very difficult issue to bring before an elected governing body,” he said. “Property rights can extend to anything and everything and if that’s recognized by the Vilas County board, then I think you set a precedent and some ingenious attorney will use a property rights issue to use against the board on any matter where we are interfacing with private property.”
Rogacki said there is another issue brought up by another Vilas County supervisor, Behling, that he said is “an excellent issue.”
“The safety issue,” he said. “In the context of the safety issue, I can support moving the trail.”
Rogacki said he wanted to make sure whatever decision the county board makes in moving the trail will be a good one for the snowmobile clubs and snowmobilers.
“It’s a lifeline to the economy,” he said. “It’s important ... we have a great trail system and we have to balance those two issues.”
Rogacki said the matter would come before the Vilas County board at its next regular meeting.
“There was a move for a special meeting,” he said.
That move was begun by Behling, who told The Lakeland Times Jan. 10 if he could get the required number of signatures on a special meeting petition, that meeting would be advertised and a special meeting of the Vilas County board could have been held as early as Thursday, Jan. 16.
Rogacki said he didn’t support the idea of a special meeting, saying it would cost the county extra money and the county board would be meeting in regular session in less than two weeks and could take the matter up then.
“I did not sign on to the idea of a special meeting but I am supporting having this matter added to the agenda of the regular board meeting at the end of the month.”
Rogacki said he would speak at that county board meeting, as he was at the meeting of the St. Germain town board, in favor of a resolution to the effect he explained to the town board.
“Then I think we’re done with the issue,” he said. “The problem we’re having, if we do some stuff different than this, I think we set precedents. There’s always someone, maybe not from here, maybe from Chicago, who says ‘You’re not crossing my property’ or ‘You’re not going to do this to me’ and they use our own decision-making against us. I don’t want to get the board in that situation. I want to make sure we make the right decision.”
Rogacki said that decision needs to be good for everyone, including snowmobile clubs and property owners.
“And we’re using the right format which is not property rights but safety,” he said.
He mentioned Behling, a chemical engineer, showed stopping distances at specific speeds for visibility on the highway.
“That made some sense to me,” Rogacki said. “The safety aspect I think will be accepted by the county board. There a lot of people on the county board who know nothing – nothing about this at all except maybe what they read in the paper. So, I think you’re going to have a bit of learning curve here, too.”
Rogacki said he is not a member of any of the county committees dealing with the issue but indicated he would be visiting with members one-on-one to see where they stand.
“We’re going to need some votes,” he said. “I think that if this is acceptable to my colleagues, we could probably fashion a solution where we could eliminate this problem and prevent future problems. That’s pretty much where I am.”
Camp thanked Rogacki and said he didn’t put the item of town roads for snowmobile use on the meeting’s agenda to get people “all riled up because we’re the snowmobile capital of the world.”
“We’re not going to be closing our roads to snowmobiles,” he said. “One of the town supervisors asked me to put this on there and it’s in reference to this, – section Sixteen Road crossing.”
Camp said all the town board has the right to do on the issue is open and close town roads to snowmobiling.
“That’s the power we have here,” he said. “If we need to ... open another road tonight that we currently don’t have open, we have the authority to do that tonight at this meeting. That’s why I made it broad and not tie our hands.”
Camp said snowmobiling is encouraged.
“We have to have snowmobiling,” he said. “It’s here and we all depend on it. All of us. Whether you’re a business owner or not, snowmobiling affects all of us financially.”
Camp then opened the floor to any town board members who wished to speak on the matter.
Albee was the first to do so.
“I’d like to talk because this is on the agenda because of me,” he said. “I just want to explain why it’s on there and what I’ve done in the last 30 hours.”
Albee said he had been contacted the morning before by Tom Martens, who he said asked him to stop by his house.
“I complied,” Albee said. “He’s a resident of the town of St. Germain and I feel it’s my obligation to comply if someone has a request similar to that.”
He said he met with Tom and Karen Martens and looked at the snowmobile crossing, which had been marked the Friday before.
“They showed me where it was marked and that’s the first time I ever saw it,” Albee said. “I’ve not been involved in this process prior to yesterday.”
He said the Martens discussed their personal concerns about the trail near their property and their safety concerns for the crossing just north of Sixteen Road.
“I was very sympathetic to their personal concerns,” Albee said. “I agree with their safety concerns. After that meeting, I spoke to many individuals who have been involved in the process of re-routing the snowmobile trail over the last couple of years.”
He also read the minutes of several town board meetings where the trail was discussed and read the report from MSA and partial opinion from the DOT.
Albee said in no way had what he’d read in the previous 24 hours come even close to the amount of information disseminated or discussed over the last two years.
“What I’ve determined, being involved for 30 hours, is that I’m not arrogant enough to think that I have all the answers,” he said, “and I’m not in a position to undo what many people have worked very hard in countless hours and expense to create.”
Albee said he couldn’t say that his opinion should carry any weight.
“I’ll actually say it should not, even though in my limited time [looking at this], I have an opinion but it’s based on too little information, he said.”
After a slight pause, Camp asked the board if there was any action to be taken on opening or closing town roads.
Following another pause, Supervisor Marv Anderson said the town board had agreed 18 months before to open the section of Sixteen Road in question.
“Based upon all engineering studies and the safest route possible,” he said.
The town board had done that it at its regular meeting May 22, 2012. According to the MSA report, Jim Bollmann, an engineer with MSA, had met with Dale Mayo of the Vilas County Forestry Department that day to review the project site.
The study performed by MSA to which Anderson was referencing in his comments was actually completed a few weeks later and the report from MSA dated was June 22, 2012.
Camp told Albee to continue.
“I’ve asked a million questions of a million people,” Albee said. “Many of the people had been on previous town boards, are on this town board, that are in the snowmobile club ... I really wanted to gather information. Everything I asked was asked before. All the questions, looking at re-routes and alternatives. It comes down to ... the DOT made a decision on what they thought was the best route for various reasons and I don’t happen to agree with it.”
He reiterated he wasn’t arrogant enough to jump into the process at the last minute and sabotage it.
Camp said the town board opened the last three-tenths of mile of Sixteen Road, which he said had never been open before, to allow the trail to cross Hwy. 155 and the town board, at the time, felt the Lost Lake Road Crossing, away from the S-curve where the Sixteen Road crossing is located, would be better.
“We had the St. Germain fire chief testify ... the Plum Lake fire chief testify,” he said. “I know, as a first responder and fireman for 20-some years I’ve been to more accidents on that section of highway than any other in the town of St. Germain.”
“Car accidents,” Anderson said.
“Yes, car accidents,” Camp said. “We never had a snowmobile accident.”
He said he was a retired highway engineer but not a highway traffic engineer, who he said would look at things differently.
“I just look at the data like everyone else,” Camp said. “And we rely on the data provided by MSA, who the county hired.”
He said he had talked to Behling and put the question to him: Are you a traffic engineer?
“No,” Camp said and went on to say he told Behling he was no different than Camp in analyzing the material.
“Do I personally think it’s unsafe?” Camp asked. “Yes, I do. Based on my experience of living here and what I’ve seen.”
He said if something happens involving snowmobiles at the Sixteen Road Crossing, it won’t happen to the first snowmobile to cross.
“Because we all snowmobile,” Camp said. “The first guy looks, everything’s fine. The second guy looks. But that third and fourth sled? When they go, they see the other ones went and they’ve gone, too.”
He said that was his fear.
“And it’s on themselves, not by anything we can do, that would jeopardize themselves and put themselves in harm’s way and potentially have an accident,” Camp said. “We can’t control that. All we can do is with the best of our knowledge we have and the best of our ability within reason and the scientific studies that they’ve done out there [make a decision] and go from there.”
Camp thanked those who came to the meeting and said he didn’t mean to upset people.
“A supervisor asked it be put on the agenda and we can’t discuss without it being on the agenda,” he said.
Supervisor Bill Bates said if the engineering study shows it [the Sixteen Road crossing] is safe, he would go along with it.
Anderson asked Rogacki with everything that has been done to this point what the role of the county would be.
Rogacki said the county’s role has been pretty much financial in nature.
“However, this issue has taken on a life of its own.” he said. “Politically, it has to be taken up and resolved by the board or has to be addressed. I gave you what I thought the answer might be. Maybe it’ll be just a discussion. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out.”
Supervisor Tom Christensen, president-elect of the Bo Boen Snowmobile Club, told Rogacki the county board would be setting a new precedent.
“Because you are entering into the first trail you’ve ever weighed in on,” he said. “It has always been handled the same way this one has been handled until this point. It’s been a very successful system throughout the years and we’ve done a lot to build this trail system to where it is today without the intervention of any county board. Now, all of a sudden, we have a county board that wants to be involved and they want to start being involved. Are you going to start getting involved in every trail? Or is it going to be a situation where someone keeps going back and back ... and keeps whining about the trail?”
Christensen told Rogacki he believed the county was going down the wrong path by getting involved.
“You have the experts that have weighed in,” he said. “You’ve done the due diligence. Your committee has functioned very well. They’ve covered all the bases. I don’t think there are bases to cover anymore.”
He indicated he didn’t see – outside of a discussion at the county board level Rogacki had mentioned – the point.
Rogacki said he would defer to the safety committee and said its chairman, Ralph Sitzberger, did a good job.
“But if you can see a simpler way to solve this issue ... if you guys want to step forward and resolve this issue, please step forward and resolve it.
That brought some comments from the audience and Christensen said there was no issue to solve.
“Everything’s been done,” he said. “We’ve done all the steps we normally do to put a snowmobile trail in the right of way. It’s been approved by the agencies that have to approve it that are responsible for it. Every step has been done. There is no issue to solve.”
Christensen told Rogacki the county was making an issue out of it.
“This has morphed, evolved, this is way beyond what it should be,” Rogacki said. “I recognize that, OK? It’s taken on a life of its own. It’s walking around here, poking its nose in everybody’s business. I understand it completely. But the minute that safety issue is raised and it appears legitimate, and you’re talking about people that know less about this than I do ... I know something about it because I happen to be hearing about it here. But a lot of members of the board will say, ‘We have a safety problem here?’”
That again brought a response from people in the audience.
“Hasn’t the DOT weighed in on this?” someone in the audience asked. “From a safety standpoint? That’s what we were told.”
“I’m telling you what the dynamics of the board are,” Rogacki said.
“Our work is done here,” Camp said. “I know we’re all concerned about it.”
He encouraged people concerned about the issue to contact their county board representatives.
Rogacki took it a step further.
“Come to the meeting,” he told the audience.
“We will,” he was told.
The day after that town board meeting, Vilas County Clerk David Alleman said there was indeed a petition begun by Behling but it wasn’t submitted to the clerk’s office.
“I sent that information to the board,” he said. “Mr. Behling, due to circumstances at the St. Germain meeting ... is now considering the need for the [special] meeting moot.”
Brian Jopek may be reached at email@example.com.