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A lawsuit that brought river-protection concerns against a proposed four-story building in downtown Hudson, Wis., seemed to find support Friday from a St. Croix County Circuit judge, who in a hearing said he found one of the city's arguments for approving a variance for the building project "ridiculous."

The lawsuit, filed by the Wild Rivers Conservancy of the St. Croix and Namekagon and several neighbors of the project, said the city's Zoning Board of Appeals granted five variances for a building project proposed by landowner Ron Gagnon in violation of state statutes and city ordinances that implement the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Among the suit's allegations: The proposed mixed-use building is too tall, lacks appropriate setbacks and received variances without consent from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as required by state law for projects within the special "riverway" zone near the St. Croix River where Gagnon wants to build.

An attorney representing the city's Board of Appeals said there was no record of the DNR asserting that provision of law: "The WDNR theoretically had the right to make that assertion but didn't at any point, and for that reason I don't believe there's any merit" to the suit's complaint about DNR approvals, argued Mary Nelson of Crivello, Nichols & Hall.

Circuit Judge R. Michael Waterman wasn't having it, saying the state statute clearly says the city's board of appeals needed DNR approval.

"You're basically saying the city can do anything it wants as long as nobody objects," he said to Nelson. "That's ridiculous."

The case stems from a series of board meetings last summer, when Gagnon approached the city with plans for a project at 307 to 321 Second St. and 100 Commercial St. The four-story building with sidewalk-level commercial space, a fitness center and 109 housing units above would take up the city block bordered by Second, Commercial, First and Wisconsin streets. It would have underground parking for 143 vehicles with access on Wisconsin and Commercial streets. A shuttered bank and a retail framing shop, Lakefront Framing, are the only structures on the block. Gagnon's limited liability corporation bought some of the property in 2022, according to court documents. The project's architect is Bob Loken of ESG Architecture and Design; the developer is Ari Parritz of Reuter Walton.

A public hearing was held in May of last year, and the Board of Appeals initially denied a height variance to allow the building to rise 57 feet — 12 feet higher than allowed within the riverway zone designated by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1972, which created the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. That zone extends west to the river from Hudson's Second Street, including the sites for Gagnon's project. The board then reconvened in July, reversed its decision on the building's height and approved other project variances. The Wisconsin DNR sent a letter before the public hearing outlining its reasons for objecting to the height variance, saying a shorter building would be less visible from the river and block less views.

Attorney Einar Hanson, representing the petitioners, said the city violated the Rivers Act protections when the board granted variances for the proposed building's "height, width, mass, density, landscaping, location, and other components." The lawsuit argued that the board's approval of the project sets a precedent that could see similar projects rise within the rivertown zoning districts.

Hanson said the Board of Appeals seemed to be swayed by the project's size, and that in order to be viable, the building had to rise to 57 feet.

"Economic viability are no basis for a variance," Hanson said. "Yet, when you read the transcript, you get the sense the board was so dazzled by this project that they were willing to follow any rationale that allowed them to grant variances."

Attorney Nicholas Vivian, representing the Board of Appeals, said the volunteer board deserved credit "because this is a group of citizens dealing with a difficult set of circumstances." Hanson responded that the lawsuit took issue with the project, not the board: "There's no attack by the petitioners on the good citizens on the Board of Appeals," he said.

The petitioners including two businesses located across the street from the proposed project who said the size and mass of the Gagnon building would obscure their view of the St. Croix River. Petitioners Todd Ellingson and Joel and Carol Skinner are nearby property owners who say the development would harm their property values and block river views. Petitioner Genie Castro is a Hudson resident and business owner who said the project would harm the city's historic rivertown feel.

"I really think Hudson can keep up with progress and still keep our town with its rivertown charm," she said in an email. "The proposed building that Gagnon wants to put in will span from sidewalk to sidewalk and consume a whole downtown block."

After hearing arguments from both sides, Waterman said he would issue a written ruling.