YORKVILLE — Racine County’s resolution to allow land acquisition for the controversial Highway KR widening project will come back around to committee Thursday, but the path here has been marred by what has been called miscommunication and misrepresentation.
During a Feb. 26 Racine County Public Works, Parks and Facilities Committee meeting, Julie Anderson, the county’s director of public works and development services, told supervisors there was no “significant opposition” to the proposed Highway KR widening project, but residents have been sharing concerns with the county since last summer.
In the meeting, County Supervisor Nick Demske of Racine asked if there was any “significant opposition” to the proposed Highway KR widening project, according to Anderson.
“I am not aware of significant opposition to this project,” Anderson remembers replying.
SOMERS — Leslie Maj saved up for about 10 years to afford to move to her rural home in Mount Pleasant, just west of 56th Avenue on the north s…
The exchange ended and the committee unanimously passed a resolution on to the County Board that would authorize measures including eminent domain to acquire private land for the proposed widening of a stretch of Highway KR from two to four lanes while adding a turn lane, railroad overpasses and a multi-use path.
Two days later, a groundswell of opposition was heard during a public hearing hosted by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation at Somers Village Hall, 7511 12th St., resulting in more than 160 residents signing a petition demanding the project be slowed down.
Residents turned the petition in to the Racine County Board during a March 12 meeting and the land acquisition resolution was kicked back to committee before the County Board took a vote on it.
Anderson knew of at least some of these concerns beforehand, she said.
Since July 25, 2018, the DOT and staff from Racine and Kenosha counties have had biweekly design meetings “to review all the concerns, all the feedback” on the project, said Brett Wallace, the DOT’s director of transportation for southeastern Wisconsin.
“We don’t need our (biweekly) design meeting to understand that there were issues,” Wallace said. “We all collectively heard that.”
Anderson said she was at some of those meetings, but not all. However, the county was represented at each one, she said.
According to Anderson, the amount of concerns coming in was par for the course and “not the magnitude that’s being expressed now in the County Board meetings.”
“I’m comfortable with what I told the committee, because it was the best information that I had,” she said. “Now, we can get into nitpicking and say, ‘Well if one person was opposed, then it should have never gone to the board floor.’ That’s not realistic thinking. That’s not realistic thinking at all.”
County Supervisor Fabi Maldonado, a Racine resident who sits on the Public Works Committee, said he believes that “miscommunication” led to Anderson not telling the committee of the known concerns, but stressed that it does not reflect well on the County Board.
“I think this miscommunication definitely fueled the anxiety, the mistrust, the bad perception of the county,” Maldonado said. “And it makes it look like we’re just selling the people out — I don’t want to say to Foxconn — but it just looks like we’re not looking out for the people. It does not help us at all.”
Demske agreed it was likely a miscommunication, not a suppression of information.
Leslie Maj of Mount Pleasant, who stands to lose about 100 feet of her front yard to the project and has been one of its most vocal opponents throughout the process, said “what has resulted from this is a lack of trust” and that Anderson made “a misleading statement.”
Anderson acknowledged that some residents have lost trust in the county.
“These aren’t big secrets,” Anderson said. “We don’t have anything to hide, and I certainly am never in the business of misleading anybody. … I’m sorry that people feel like they’ve lost trust in me or my department or my committee. I can only speak for my own actions, but the information I take to the committee is the best information I have available.”
Maldonado called for the County Board to apologize to the public for the way the resolution was initially handled and advocated for a board-hosted public hearing on the project.
Wallace said “I don’t want to criticize” Anderson and said he thinks the county will communicate better in the future.
But County Supervisor Tom Hincz, vice chair of the Public Works Committee and Town of Waterford chairman, said the DOT should be in direct contact with the County Board rather than relying on county staff to relay resident concerns.
The DOT received 51 comments during the project’s public comment period, which was open Jan. 29 to March 7. The DOT did not send those comments to Racine County or Kenosha County until March 14, two days after the Racine County Board had the resolution on its agenda.
DOT spokesman Michael Pyritz attributed the delay to a high volume of comments.
“With any DOT project, which I’ve said before, they take total control,” Hincz said. “The county has no control; the township has no control. They (the DOT) become the king, essentially. … They should be held just as much accountable as everybody else.”
But no one necessarily deserves blame, Demske said, because “there are so many different moving parts to every decision that is made in government.”
“When there’s a million hands on something, sometimes things slip through one of those hands,” Demske said. “... I am a little disappointed in myself that I, I guess, just went forward in our first meeting and our first vote without pushing harder.”
The project as proposed would be funded by $59 million from the DOT. Racine and Kenosha counties are responsible for acquiring a combined 68.9 acres of land on a 2.8-mile stretch of KR from 400 feet east of Highway H to 1,600 feet east of Old Green Bay Road to make way for the expansion. Most of the land would come from Mount Pleasant, according to current plans. Five properties, all in Mount Pleasant, would also need to be demolished to make way for a Canadian Pacific Railroad overpass.
While the state would pay $59 million for the project, the county would only pay for the land acquisition, estimated to come in at $2.5 million, split between 2019 and 2020, and compensable utility costs, estimated at $125,000, Anderson said.
“When the state comes to town with a bucket of money, that’s the time to do these things,” Anderson said.
Last week, the Kenosha County Board passed its own resolution with a 14-7 vote.
The Racine County resolution is scheduled to next be discussed Thursday at a joint Executive and Public Works, Parks and Facilities Committee meeting. From there, it will go to the County Board for a first reading on May 7 and a second reading on May 14.
“With any DOT project, which I’ve said before, they take total control. The county has no control; the township has no control. They (the DOT) become the king, essentially. … They should be held just as much accountable as everybody else.” County Supervisor Tom Hincz