There are two manifest conclusions to be drawn from the recent Hwy. 51 reconstruction playout, which ultimately resulted in a signed agreement between the town of Minocqua and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation: The state agency planned early on and was determined to eliminate as many Hwy. 51 accesses as possible, and town officials tried to save as many driveways as they could but never considered abandoning the comprehensive project for more elemental repavement and gutter and curb repair.
Those analytical verdicts are rendered from a view of three years of town records related to the reconstruction undertaking, from Jan. 1, 2009, to Feb. 9, 2012. The $7-million project is slated to begin in the spring of 2013.
At a Minocqua town board meeting in December 2011, for example, DOT project development supervisor Robin Stafford and DOT north-central regional director Russ Habech said the enterprise had changed significantly since an initial developmental phase in the early 2000s, in which the principal goals then were to fix deteriorating pavement, as well as curbs and gutters that were falling apart.
As early as 2007, they said at the meeting, the project had morphed into a major reconstruction effort underwritten by federal dollars - an effort offering the DOT a chance to accomplish a lot more than merely repaving a highway and repairing the stormwater runoff system.
"In 2007, 2008, we took a step back and tried to understand what was happening with the corridor," Stafford said.
Habech agreed, saying, "once we get to reconstruction, it opens up a lot of things for the department."
One of the things opened up was the opportunity to restrict vehicle access to properties from Hwy. 51, and the agency was intending to do that in multiple ways. At one point, they planned to construct a median from Woodruff to south of Paul Bunyan's, eliminating left turns along that stretch, with backage roads to provide off-highway access.
If DOT officials are to be believed, they were also planning major driveway eliminations all along the reconstruction route; they admitted as much at one of the earliest public information meetings on the matter in 2007, a session in which access limitations were presented as part of the DOT's "vision."
As reported by The Lakeland Times, in August of 2007 the long-range blueprint involved "improved intersections with new turning lanes, the elimination of many business driveways along Hwy. 51, and the construction of new town roads to provide rear access to those businesses and local alternatives to using the main highway."
The admission about driveway removal proved to be a rare and fleeting moment of candor by agency officials. It likely drew little public attention because officials did not divulge which access points would be targeted, or even if a target list had been compiled.
Didn't discuss specific driveways
Beyond that simple acknowledgment, the issue of driveways disappeared. In town records, it doesn't surface until early 2011, and apparently vanished almost as much in internal discussions between DOT and town officials.
The median and backage roads contentions generated the headlines and the heat instead, as the town registered vehement opposition to those concepts.
Fast forward three years, to August 2010, and the town had made headway on the median problem. The DOT had presented what then town chairman Joe Handrick called a "restrained" median stopping short of McDonald's.
In addition, the board steadfastly refused to consider the backage road concept. In an Aug. 8, 2010, email to Fred (presumably the DOT's McHugh), Handrick said the board did not support mapping for the project and did not even want to consider a public information meeting about the idea.
"I asked if they at the very least wanted to hold an 'open house' where businesses along that stretch could review the plan and give input - the answer was 'no,'" Handrick wrote.
The DOT eventually abandoned the backage road and median schemes, but what they didn't forgo were their ongoing plans to do away with scores of driveways.
Indeed, by early December of 2010, the agency had fashioned its revised reconstruction blueprint enough for public presentation, and so scheduled a Jan. 20, 2011, meeting in Minocqua to unveil it. In a Jan. 6, 2011, letter inviting property owners and residents to the gathering - about a year-and-a-half away from planned construction - the agency finally announced its access intentions; some of those letters went to property owners in late December 2010.
"The department is also reviewing access along the US 51 corridor with the goal of balancing the need for increasing the safety and operational efficiency (for both the highway through traffic and the community) with the needs of individual properties," DOT project manager Richard Simon wrote in the Jan. 6 letter. "This may require some access modification as part of these projects."
"Some" turned out to be more than 50.
That news stunned property owners and created a brewing firestorm, but the number of driveways targeted for elimination apparently came as news to Handrick, too, who by Jan. 6, 2011, had resigned as town chairman. In a Jan. 26, 2011, email to new town chairman Mark Hartzheim, Handrick said the agency didn't bring up plans to eliminate specific driveways, while the town had focused on the median issue.
"The DOT said never (sic) showed us the plan to change all the driveways - they just made a general statement that some places with multiple drives may be changed which is quite common," Handrick wrote. "Many people upset about the driveway access plan from DOT probably don't realize that their original plan was to run a median from the Mobil station all the way to Highway J. The town should get at least some of the credit for talking them out of that. I had made it quite clear we would scream bloody murder if they went forward with that. We never really discussed the driveways."
Handrick's statement is reinforced by meeting minutes from more than a year earlier, on Dec. 17, 2009, when consultants performing a feasibility study about the proposed backage road, Becher Hoppe, met with DOT and town officials at the DOT's northern regional offices. The minutes, prepared by Becher Hoppe's Mark Pertile, minimized the ambit of access termination and, in any event, linked it to the proposed median.
"Joe Handrick made an initial statement that the Town of Minocqua is not in favor of the Backage Roads, nor the costs that may be involved in constructing the Backage Roads," the minutes stated. "But the Town of Minocqua has been told by the DOT, that the DOT is planning on eliminating some business access off of Hwy 51 (i.e raised curb median) and in an effort of cooperation with the DOT, the Town has agreed to take a part in a feasibility study of a Backage Roads to provide both businesses and the public a safe and functional road which limits the amount of loss to its constituents."
At the Jan. 20 open house, too, both Minocqua and Woodruff town officials said they were as surprised as anybody about the plans for driveway modification, and perhaps more so because officials had just learned about the plans, though the DOT had been sending notification letters to property owners since late December.
The officials said the department never sent any letter to the towns or notified them in any other way, while one town supervisor said he learned of the driveway plans by reading about them in the paper.
While they had not heard about the plans before, the issue was suddenly on the front burner, and both Woodruff town chairman Mike Timmons and Minocqua chairman Hartzheim became integrally engaged.
Timmons became more vocal publicly - eventually the town of Woodruff would pass a resolution opposing the project in its current configuration - while Hartzheim acted more behind the scenes as he worked to resolve disputes between individual property owners and the DOT.
Town records in fact show a flurry of correspondence between Minocqua residents and Hartzheim, and between Hartzheim and DOT officials, as the town chairman attempted to mediate matters. Town supervisors Sue Heil and Bryan Jennings were also actively involved.
By March 2, 2011, citizen concerns were great enough that Hartzheim invoked coordination with the DOT as a way to try and ensure continued efforts to compromise. Coordination is a legal strategy by which local officials try to compel federal and state officials to sit at the table, at a minimum, and work to make project plans compatible with local objectives and needs.
State officials routinely reject any legal obligation to coordinate, saying their participation is voluntary, but, either way, Hartzheim and the supervisors were trying, and the two sides were meeting.
"This letter serves as our request for continued coordination between your agency and our local government," Hartzheim wrote. "We view this coordination to be critical for all stakeholders. We provided significant input at our meeting this morning and understand that you will be giving that input weight and meaning with the goal of making the state plan consistent with local needs and realities."
The town notched some successes as time went on; at other times, the DOT would not budge. By the middle of April, though, DOT regional planners and project managers were chafing at ongoing negotiations and decided to move ahead.
The problem was, in the view of many citizens and the town board, significant concerns remained, and that prompted Hartzheim to write to new DOT secretary Mark Gottlieb on April 14, 2011.
"We have met numerous times with regional DOT personnel in an effort to take the needs and concerns of local landowners and businesses into account," he wrote. "Some of our recommendations were incorporated into plan revisions, which is appreciated. But at this time, the regional DOT representatives have indicated that they have essentially concluded with hearing local input and now plan to move forward with the project. However, there remain some major issues of concern. Several owners are sill losing direct highway access. This is a serious concern for owners on many levels. Is there any additional recourse aside from Regional DOT staff for these owners to plead their case?"
Hartzheim outlined other concerns as well, including the intersection of Hwys. 51 and 70, which he believed would become increasingly problematic under the new plan. He additionally raised the issue of water runoff.
In an April 27 reply to Hartzheim, Gottlieb sided with his regional staff. He gave a tip of the hat to the notion of coordination - ongoing, he asserted - said compromises had been achieved and, in a template manner, reaffirmed the regional decision to move ahead despite any outstanding local anxieties.
"Through discussion with affected property owners, compromises were reached that will help minimize impacts to the properties and provide a balance between access, safety and operational efficiency of the highway," Gottlieb wrote. "The department will be moving forward with the final access modifications and continue to work with affected property owners during the real estate process to purchase the access rights."
No more negotiations, in other words, except to purchase the access rights. At that point, despite the town's intervention, the DOT had still earmarked more than 40 driveways for shuttering.
The DOT's hard line did nothing but provoke those concerned about their own properties, not to mention raise the ire of those worried about the project's overall economic impact on the town.
By October, citizens and property owners had mounted a petition campaign, delivering 647 signatures to both Gottlieb and Gov. Scott Walker. In an interview with The Lakeland Times after receiving the petitions, the governor said he would rein in the process and hold public meetings and hearings.
"Basically our response was, one, we need to add more public engagement and, two, a little bit of a push back and response to that was we need to figure out a way to make sure that, while good and adequate transportation is important - we know, from a tourism standpoint, having easy access to key tourist destinations is incredibly important - while doing that, we don't take away the reason that people come there in the first place," Walker said.
With that balance in mind, the governor said, the DOT would be "slowing it down."
True to Walker's word in October, the DOT quickly convened another public information meeting on Nov. 10, 2011. It turned out to be a virtual rerun of the Jan. 20 gathering, however: A large crowd of questioning citizens received few answers.
DOT staff didn't bring traffic crash data, they didn't know the exact number of access points they had targeted for extinction (it was still more than 40), they had no clue about the economic impact of their access decisions, and they admitted they were holding the latest meeting only because they were told to.
They did know the answer to one thing, though. Throughout the meeting, project officials held firm to their final plans for reconstruction. What's more, they resisted renewed calls for a public hearing, where formal presentations could be made and testimony taken in a focused format.
"We're not doing public hearings," Stafford said. "You're welcome to provide comments in the box. You're welcome to call us."
At the beginning of the session, Stafford echoed earlier DOT correspondence suggesting the proposed plan was final, the agency had made its decisions, and consensus had been reached with property owners.
"Every person who has had an issue with it, we have discussed it," he said. "We've tried to come up with solutions. We've evaluated whether we felt that it could (change), we've done computer modeling. So it's changed (the plan from January). It's changed to where it's come to some consensus."
DOT project leaders also attended a Dec. 6, 2011, town board meeting for further discussion and to present a summary of the final plans. In the end, the DOT pledged to not move forward with the project without the town's support, agreed to review contested crash and safety data along the route, and promised to continue to engage in dialogue with affected property and business owners.
For its part, the town committed to help coordinate and organize a public hearing-type meeting in which it was hoped high-level DOT officials and project decision-makers would participate.
But neither the November listening session nor the Dec. 6 town board meeting convinced skeptics the DOT was really listening or working with the town any longer, despite the governor's words. They weren't alone; some supervisors felt the same way.
Next: The Minocqua town board walks a fine line in dealing with the DOT.
Richard Moore may be reached at email@example.com.