La Crosse officials are considering whether 160 acres of city-owned bluffland intended to be a park would be better used for residential development.
“If there’s an opportunity to put some taxable property up there, we should really take a hard look at it,” council member Andrea Richmond said.
The Upper Hixon Forest land adjacent to the National Weather Service station on Hwy. FA now has a network of public trails, built and maintained by the trail advocacy group Human Powered Trails since 2001.
The University of Wisconsin System sold the former Experimental Farm to the city in 1963 for $38,900 with the understanding it would become a park, said Steve Carlyon, city parks and recreation director.
Carlyon doesn’t know why almost 50 years passed without that designation. Strict state laws on what can be done with park land might be a factor, he speculated, as undoing it would require court action.
He’d like to apply for grant funds to improve the site for the growing number of hikers, bikers, birders and others who use the trails.
That can’t happen unless it’s officially a park.
“It’s a great resource for this community. It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Carlyon said.
But the Common Council balked last week at designating it a park, putting off a decision for 30 days so staff can study the potential costs and returns from housing on the site.
Both the weather service and the Grandad Bluff park have wells providing water, “so it is possible,” Richmond said.
The city has much more tax-exempt property than in 1963, she noted.
“If we could use even half that land up there, we should be doing it,” Richmond said, adding a “pocket park” and trails could remain at the site.
Carlyon said he can appreciate the council wanting to consider all options. “I think they’re doing their job,” he said. “This should not be a slam dunk.”
But he believes the land is best suited to be a park and tourist attraction. Providing services likely will outweigh any tax benefit the city might see, he said.
“If it could be a subdivision, it probably would be by now,” Carlyon said.
Marvin Wanders, owner of 360 Real Estate Solutions, also questioned whether the land is suitable for development considering the steep bluff slopes.
“There’s not really that many houses you could build up there,” Wanders said.
Though a past president of Human Powered Trails, Wanders said his company pays enough in city taxes annually that “if I didn’t think park land was the best use for our citizens, I wouldn’t say that.”
He recently agreed to be the unpaid executive director of a new group to promote “silent sports” in the area. Losing the site would cut out a substantial portion of the 12-mile trail system on the bluffs, which Wanders said not only boosts regional tourism but has become part of the “quality of life” that lures professionals to La Crosse.
“I think you’re better off to continue this as a silent sports focus,” Wanders said. “You will get much more value ... better than you ever would by using this as home lots.”