Squeezed for space, La Crosse considers development of River Valley

David Fettig | Managing Editor

Published September 1, 1989  | September 1989 issue

"This is a classic case of environmental issues vs. economic development."

That's Craig Thompson's assessment of the current debate over development of the La Crosse River Valley, which runs through the city. Thompson is a member of the state Department of Natural Resources in La Crosse.

The problem for La Crosse is that it is geographically hemmed in by the Mississippi River, the river bluffs and the communities of Holmen and Onalaska. The only area available for expansion of the city's industrial base is in the La Crosse River Valley.

In addition, La Crosse would like to broaden its highway system. Studies show that four to six lanes of additional highways will be needed to maintain traffic flow at its current levels by the year 2010, and the easiest place to build highways would be through the river valley, rather than widening existing roads.

The question for La Crosse is: Should the river valley be developed, and if so, to what degree? At stake are about 1,800 acres of river valley, with 1,300 to 1,400 of those being wetlands, according to Thompson.

The answers to that development question will be in large part determined by the results of a comprehensive study by La Crosse County, the city of La Crosse, and the state departments of Natural Resources and Transportation. The study's conclusions, available next year, will be presented to local units of government and, pending their approval, serve as the basis for future land use decisions.

The study will comprise results of reports on population and economic projections, archaeology, recreational use, land use and ownership, transportation needs, cultural and natural resource features, and impact on water quality, wildlife, flood control and other environmental issues. And of those, according to Thompson, the big issue is flood control.

Thompson said if a community makes too many environmental concessions for the sake of economic development it can be analogous to removing rivets on the wing of an airplane. "There comes a point where you remove too many rivets," he said.

"It's more economically sensible to do the job right now than end up paying in the long run," Thompson said.

However, Ronald Bracegirdle, La Crosse director of city planning, said some of the area under consideration "isn't particularly environmentally significant."

For example, Bracegirdle said about 300 non-wetland acres are under consideration for industrial development, although some fall within the flood plain. And, even though a projected highway through the valley would destroy some wetlands, Bracegirdle said the highway could be built like a bridge, with only the supporting pillars descending to the valley.

The problem with some environmentalists, Bracegirdle said, is that they believe nothing should be done if any negative ecological impacts will result. You can't build anything, anywhere, without impacting the environment in some way, he said.

A recent report prepared for the study group suggested that La Crosse's population will grow beyond the 1990 projections of 50,000. Also, Onalaska, bounded by La Crosse on the south and Holmen on the north, doubled its population between 1970 and 1980 and is expected to soon have space problems of its own. Similarly, since 1980, Holmen has increased its geographic size by one-third through annexation. All which causes Bracegirdle to state unequivocally about the future: "We will need more highways in order to run smoothly."

But a local affiliation, the La Crosse River Marsh Coalition, takes sharp issue with development plans for the river valley. The group asserts:

"The La Crosse River Marsh Coalition promotes the preservation and restoration of all existing and former wetlands within the study area and opposes any further development within this area."

Somewhere between that opinion, and one of complete development, is where the study group's recommendations will likely fall, according to Thompson. Indeed, La Crosse's growing population can, in part, be attributed to the recreational and aesthetic benefits of the river valley, he said. Likewise, the economic benefits of such growth are partly dependent on a healthy river valley.

There is room for both points of view, Thompson said, but "our philosophy has to be predicated on a healthy environment."