Judge Edward F. Vlack

“This isn’t about whether the decision was right, but if it was done correctly,” said Judge Edward F. Vlack during the most recent hearing concerning the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail (SSLST). Vlack made the statement after granting a temporary restraining order to keep the trail snowmobile and horse free-for now.

Court was back in session March 9 dealing with the civil lawsuit filed against Polk County’s decision to add usages to the SSLST. Friends of the SSLST and two parties who live beside the trail filed the suit in January.

According to circuit court documents, the plaintiffs seek review of Polk County resolution 02-21 on Jan. 19, 2021. This is the resolution that added snowmobiling and horse riding to the trail at certain times of the year.

The court filing said, "After the trail was acquired, a master plan was prepared for the trail in 2004 to ‘represent the strategy of Polk County as well as various trail advocates and user groups and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources…for the development, operation and maintenance’ of the trail.” The plan provided for nonmotorized and motorized uses on separate trail treads and stated the DNR would prepare an environmental review related to the plan.

The attorneys of the plaintiffs argue the county board did not keep within its jurisdiction when it approved Resolution 02-21 and the plan. The Master Operating Agreement (MOU) required the County to coordinate and prepare the plan within two years of March 22, 2018, the date the cooperative easement was conveyed. The plaintiffs argue the county did not do so and lacked authority to prepare the plan outside of the two-year window. According to the plaintiffs, the county additionally lacked authority to conduct planning for the trail because that duty is reserved to the DNR under Wisconsin law. The filing states “the role of political subdivisions like counties is to develop land use plans that preserve rights of way for future trails and to ‘participate in’ DNR planning.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also argue the county exercised its will and not its judgment and did not base its decision on evidence that reasonably supported approving Resolution 02-21 and the masterplan. “The county approved a plan that is by its own admission is ‘low’ for safety, presents multiple safety risks and will not attract the very users it is intended to accommodate, like equestrians,” the filing states.

The filing also says the county board “failed to follow its own rules in Ordinance 13-20, because Resolution 02-21 lacked a fiscal estimate, despite the plan anticipating future costs like building the rustic winter trail and ski trails, installing signage, and new facilities for snowmobile users and equestrians.”

During his ruling, Vlack said, “I see no emergency,” due to warm weather conditions and the fact that snowmobile usage is set to expire March 31. He urged all parties, “Not to read anything into his decision.”

He also questioned at this hearing, as he did at the previous weeks, if the DNR should be a part of the lawsuit.

The judge said he has many questions about the many pages in the lawsuit. He plans to speak with attorneys from both sides in the near future in terms of how to move forward. “I am being practical. We may be spending a lot of time on something that may not be necessary,” said Vlack. The temporary order will also expire at the end of the month.

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