Local residents oppose proposed rail spur near Duginski Rd.
BY TINA L. SCOTT
On Thursday, July 13, 2023, the Lincoln County Land Services Committee will hold their monthly meeting and a Public Hearing at 3:30 p.m.
One of the items on the Agenda for the Public Hearing portion is a request for a Conditional Use Permit by Prairie River Junction LLC (Representative: Jeff Heller), G&M Peterson LLC (Max Peterson), and James Peterson Sons Inc. (John Peterson) to allow Heavy Industrial Use-Rail Trans Load, in a General Industrial (GI) zoning district. The property that is the subject of the request is located in Section 1, T31N-R6E, in the Town of Merrill, in three separate tax parcels that make up a combined parcel size of approximately 47 acres, fairly adjacent to the City of Merrill. In Merrill, when traveling north on Mill Street, exiting the city limits Mill Street turns into Duginski Rd. which then curves to the right/east until it intersects with Cty. Hwy. K.
Owners propose to develop a rail spur
The owners and applicants for the Conditional Use Permit are planning to develop and construct a rail spur on the property and “to develop the property to take full advantage of the new rail siding as a conduit for raw material as well as shipment of finished goods,” said Jeff Heller representing Prairie River Junction LLC.
“The property had been owned by two different Peterson families in the area for over 30 years,” he said. “Those two families and myself have had a partnership for the duration. We recently formed the LLC Prairie River Junction to start the construction of the rail spur into our property.”
A preliminary rail layout for the site has been submitted to the zoning authorities as part of the application process.
Up until now, the property has been vacant. Part of the land is wooded and some of it appears to be wetland, but the majority is clear, level, and dry, and it is adjacent to the existing railroad tracks.
“It was once used as a rail siding years ago,” Heller said. “With the rail line under new ownership and daily service being re-established, the re-use of this site as a rail served facility has potential once again.”
“The specific use is yet to be determined,” he said. “As soon as the rail siding and the switch into the site is completed, we can then seek potential users. The new user will need to comply with the zoning requirements as set forth by county zoning ordinance.”
Railroad lingo explained
A secondary railway line that branches off an important “through” line, or main line with heavier traffic, is called a branch line.
A very short branch line is called a spur line.
Branch or spur lines may serve specific industries or locations and can also connect two or more main lines. Consider them as sort of a “pull off lane” for railway traffic that can allow for loading or unloading of train cars.
A siding is a low-speed section of railroad track separate and distinct from main tracks, which may connect to main lines, branches, or spurs at either end, but typically requires lighter rails and few, if any signals, because it is designed for much slower speed and/or less heavy traffic than primary “through” rail lines.
Developers see only pros
When asked the pros and cons of the proposed development, Heller listed several pros. “Hopefully good paying jobs,” he said. And to “give the economic development agencies on both the county and state level one more site that can promote the environmental benefits of using rail transportation over truck-only movement of raw materials and products.” He said it will also add to the tax base.
Heller said he wasn’t aware of any potential cons to the proposed development.
Heller said he attended the Town of Merrill Town Board meeting in June and the project was discussed. He answered questions about the timeline but heard no opposing comments at that time.
Historically, Heller explained, railroad transportation was much more prevalent and was used to transport both passengers and freight in a cost-effective and economical manner for Merrill residents and businesses. At one time, Merrill even had three passenger depots, he said.
Area residents object
Since then, however, homeowners with property to the north of Duginski Rd. and on the intersecting Doering Rd. and Gen Dr. are objecting to the County issuing a Conditional Use Permit for such a use, and as they talk with their neighbors about the proposed development, more residents are getting on board with those objections.
Pardon and Kerrie Kanda who live on Doering Dr. registered their objections with the Town of Merrill and Lincoln County in late June. They purchased their property in this particular neighborhood “due to the tranquility and location away from city noises and sights, commuting 120 miles/day for work to live here,” they said. “We bought this property two years ago and have upgraded our home and land costing a good deal of money and the last thing we want to hear and see is the clanging of metal day and night, with trains coming and going.”
They additionally cited potential for trains carrying hazardous waste through the neighborhood and the potential for derailments and release of hazardous materials into the environment in the event of an accident or derailment. In addition, they said such a development would devalue their property.
If Lincoln County approves the Conditional Use Permit that allows Prairie River Junction LLC to move forward with their proposed rail spur development, the Kandas suggest Prairie River Junction or the railroad should purchase their home and property from them for “the current market value, which is now approximately $375,000” and use it for employee housing to enable them to find a house of equal value elsewhere in the country. If not, they would file a lawsuit “for much more than that,” their formal letter of objection to Lincoln County and Prairie River Junction said. They said they would be hiring an attorney.
Petition garners signatures of objectors
The Kandas aren’t the only ones who vehemently oppose the proposed development. A petition addressed to the Town of Merrill and Lincoln County Land Services objecting to the Conditional Use Permit request to change the properties to Heavy Industrial use, citing “close proximity to residential and agricultural properties which will negatively affect our property values, create a significant increase in noise pollution, pose a threat to the health and safety of its residents through increased commercial traffic, have the potential of rail cars blocking roadways at railroad crossing to vehicular traffic and emergency vehicles as rail cars are moved, further pavement deterioration of Duginski Rd. and others due to heavy traffic resulting in an economic burden to the township and its tax payers to repair or replace.”
The petition concluded: “Most importantly, a change to Heavy Industrial Use will negatively affect the peace and tranquility of our neighborhood which is the prime reason we chose to live here.”
Residents opposed to the rail spur project plan to present their signatures to the Merrill Town Board and also to Lincoln County at the public hearing to be held on the matter at the July 13 public hearing.
Heller refutes objections
“The residents in the area bordering our site live near a live railroad that has train service twice a day, every day,” Heller said. “It happens during the nighttime hours, and they may not notice.”
“Our property is located directly adjacent to a live mainline rail and being able to get daily rail service to our site is very beneficial,” he said. “Moving material and goods by rail is economical, environmentally sound, and safe.”
“There has been some concern about derailments nationwide lately, but when measured by incidents per ton moved, rail is still safe,” Heller said. “Our road corridors and being overcrowded and reducing any level of truck traffic will make the traveling public safer, as well, and reduce fuel consumption.”