Oneida County and the town of Lynne are at odds over an important stretch of road for hauling timber – a dispute that officials say may have significant financial implications for taxpayers, loggers and the county.
At the heart of the disagreement is a nearly 10-mile section of Willow Road in far southwestern Oneida County. The road runs north and south – vertically cutting the town of Lynne in half – and serves as a major artery for trucks hauling timber. Nearly the entire town is covered by county-owned forestland.
Town officials claim that trucks carrying timber have damaged the road, causing two dips in the pavement where tires touch the road surface. Town Chairman Dave Schatzley said the damage is particularly problematic during rain, which he said leads to hydroplaning.
The town wants to fix the road, and asked the county for money to help fund the repairs. The county’s forestry committee denied the town’s request on various grounds, arguing that there was no conclusive evidence timber trucks caused the damage, that the road might have been constructed defectively and that the town did not have any precise plans on what repairs were needed or how much repairs would cost.
This past fall, the town board enacted a measure lowering the weight limit on Willow Road to 48,000 pounds, which would substantially reduce the quantity of timber that trucks could haul on the road at any given time.
A typical load of timber weighs about 80,000 pounds, according to John Bilogan, who heads the county’s forestry department. That number can rise up to 98,000 pounds during the winter, when roads are frozen and weight limits on many roads are increased, he said.
The town has not yet put the 48,000-pound weight limit into effect, but Bilogan said if that happens, it could halt logging operations in the town of Lynne, where 42 percent of the county’s forestland is located.
Bilogan acknowledged that the town has the legal authority to impose the weight limit, but he said the limit would “have a tremendous impact” on logging activity.
“I think any future contracts that we would normally be selling that are in the town of Lynne, if we continue to sell them, we’d get a fraction of the money that we’re typically used to seeing – maybe twenty-five cents on a dollar,” Bilogan said.
The proposed weight limit has already prompted one logger to refuse to enter a contract with the county until the issue is resolved, according to Bilogan.
Schatzley said that after Willow Road thaws this spring, the town board will decide whether to enforce the lower weight limit.
County officials say another reason they have not agreed to the town’s request for money to fix the road is that the county already pays the town.
Logging generates income for both governments: In 2013, the county made more than $1.3 million from timber sales, according to Margie Sorenson, the county’s finance director. By state law, at least 10 percent of that money must go to towns in which county forests are located – nearly $133,000 last year. Of that, the town of Lynne received 42 percent, because 42 percent of the county’s forestland is located in the town.
“A lot of money, through the county forests exclusively, is already funneling back to the town,” Bilogan said in an interview.
Schatzley recognized the county’s payments, but he said they weren’t provided given the importance of Willow Road to the logging industry and the county’s logging operations.
“I would like to see more money from the county simply because I don’t believe their contribution is appropriate for using our infrastructure,” Schatzley said.
He continued: “If a farmer drove his steel-wheeled tractors down Willow Road and caused the damage, he would be liable for the repairs. This is just longer-term damage.”
Some counties do return more than the minimum 10-percent of timber sales to towns, according to Jane Severt, executive director of the Wisconsin County Forests Association.
Severt said Polk and Barron counties pay 30 percent of timber sales to towns, while Eau Claire and Washburn counties pay 15 percent.
“Road issues have been coming up more and more in regards to forestry practices,” Severt said.
Several years ago, the town of Cassian, in Oneida County, attempted to impose lower weight limits during the winter to 80,000 pounds – the typical limit on state roads except during the winter and the spring thaw.
Larry Hendrickson, the chairman of the town of Cassian, said the proposal was met with heavy opposition from loggers and related groups.
The town sought to impose the limits, he said, because town roads are not built to the same standards as state and county roads.
“My biggest problem is when you watch when the state publishes the frozen road law, when it’s in effect, it says ‘this is only effective on state highways,’” Hendrickson said. “If they want to run on local roads and county roads, they have to get permission from the local entity, which they never do. They just automatically assume they can run everywhere.”
Hendrickson said the proposed weight limits were not specifically targeted toward loggers, but all truckers.
A similar debate over weight restrictions arose in Boulder Junction in 2010.
Finding a fix
Town and county officials emphasize that they are working together to find a long-term solution to the problem with Willow Road. They are also talking with state Department of Natural Resources and Department of Transportation representatives, who might be able to provide guidance on state and federal funding sources.
“At this point, it’s an attempt at cooperation, an attempt to try to help the town of Lynne,” Supervisor Jack Sorensen, who chairs the county’s forestry committee, said. “Right now we’re trying very, very hard to find revenue sources and work with the town of Lynne in a very positive manner.”
Schatzley said he was disheartened that the county would not provide extra money to fix the road, but he also said he appreciated the wide range of support from various stakeholders to repair the road.
“The town can’t shift this burden onto the taxpayers,” he said.
Jonathan Anderson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org