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One turbulent road: Agreement keeps interchange alive, but questions linger

By Ben Rodgers

HOBART – A potential snag has been avoided, and the State Highway 29/County Trunk VV Interchange project will continue as planned, but not everyone is happy.

The villages of Hobart and Howard had been working on securing an interchange there for nearly a decade because of safety concerns.

In December 2018, Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach announced the county was successful in securing nearly $20 million in a federal grant to cover 70 percent of the cost for the project.

Oneida Nation land acquisitions

The following August, the Oneida Nation purchased land along the corridor, which included a proposed road connecting to the interchange.

David Lewis sold two parcels of land totaling 79 acres at the corner North Overland Road and County VV, or Triangle Drive, to the Oneida Nation for $9.87 million.

The deed was recorded on Friday, Aug. 23, according to records from Brown County Planning and Land Services.

According to the county, the land was valued at $155,900 in 2019.

The price paid by the Oneida Nation comes to nearly $130,000 an acre, or more than 63 times the most recent appraisal.

An Oneida Nation budget document for the 2019 fiscal year obtained by The Press Times shows in 2019 the tribe budgeted $15.49 million for land acquisition.

The purchase from Lewis accounts to nearly 63 percent of the total budgeted amount for the year.

A members-only communication from the Oneida Land Commission sent out shortly after the first purchase was announced, and obtained by The Press Times, called the purchase “strategic.”

“We acquired this property to control future development and any impact on the environment and the Oneida Reservation,” the document reads. “The Nation’s intent is to prevent high-density urban sprawl coming from the east. For decades it has been our mission to reclaim our lands and protect the environment by preserving the rural characteristics of our reservation.”

Easement agreement

In response to the purchase, Hobart passed a resolution Nov. 19, pulling back financial support for any non-fee easement on that land, instead supporting an outright purchase.

The Oneida Nation and Brown County were able to work out an agreement to keep the project moving forward with an easement, with all other property acquired for the project being purchased.

An addendum to the Brown County Municipal Project Agreement, dated Jan. 6, includes the Oneida Nation providing a perpetual limited highway zero-cost easement to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to construct a road to the interchange, which Brown County will maintain and have jurisdiction over.

“The Nation supports and is working with multiple local governments along with the Wisconsin DOT on this interchange,” said Oneida Chairman Tehassi Hill in a press release issued by the county and the tribe dated Jan. 7. “Community safety is a high priority for the Nation. This is also our chance to ensure the DOT completes the interchange in an environmentally sensitive manner.”

Hobart contends it has the cooperation of the tribe and the DOT on the project.

The guidelines in the federal grant call for the DOT to administer the project.

“The new owners, the Oneida Tribe, are now getting a very special deal with the DOT,” said a letter to Hobart residents from village leaders. “The DOT’s side deal made with the tribe, for the road needed within Hobart, is that the Tribe will keep their land and only provide access through a limited easement – which meant the Tribe retains actual ownership – and that the DOT intended to reimburse the Tribe for this easement at prices potentially higher than what they are paying the other owners. Who would pay for this land? The original partners that signed on before all these changes, including Hobart. All this happened without the DOT having the courtesy to inform Hobart.”

The entire letter to residents will be published in the Jan. 24 edition of The Press Times.

David Hemery, Brown County corporation counsel, said the move saves money, instead of the acquisition cost of purchasing the land outright, and will save Hobart money on road maintenance.

He said had the Oneida Nation not agreed to the zero-cost easement, the DOT could have purchased the land from the tribe for a cost not much more than the appraised value.

As part of the original federal grant, Howard and Hobart are each paying close to $3.5 million for the project.

“This agreement with the Nation, it’s not just good for the county citizens because of the safety that will be realized from putting that interchange in, but it also directly saves Hobart, Howard and the county funds,” Hemery said.

As part of the change, Centerline Drive will be known as County Trunk TS, the Brown County executive’s initials.

Brown County Deputy Executive Jeff Flynt said Streckenbach was unaware of the new name.

“Troy honestly was the one who led the effort to secure the federal BUILD grant,” Flynt said. “He went to Washington, D.C., and met with federal highway folks and advocated for us to get some funding that we did get. You add all of those together and that’s why the letters ‘TS’ were selected for that stretch of road.”

What the future holds

Though Streckenbach was vital to securing the $20 million federal grant, before the interchange is completed in late 2022, the Oneida Nation will have paid more than $24 million to acquire land near the project.

The total project cost is expected to be somewhere near $28-$30 million.

The same members-only communication obtained by The Press Times states in January 2021 the tribe will close on the purchase of an additional 230 acres Lewis owns adjacent to the 79 acres it purchased in August.

The document said the cost for the 230 acres will be $63,000 per acre, or a total of $14.5 million, or $24.37 million for 309 total acres immediately west of Hobart’s Centennial Centre.

“As a general rule, the Oneida Land Commission and Land Management do not disclose information until we take title to a property,” the members-only communication reads. “In this instance, the Land Commission decided to issue this communication to counter the misinformation and incomplete information placed in the media in an attempt to create division among our own people and with the citizens of Hobart.”

Nate Wisneski, senior communications specialist for the Oneida Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Communication, said the tribe has not determined any development for the 309 acres.

“Any land the Oneida Nation purchases falls in line with our Land Acquisition Plan,” he said in an email. “This purchase was strategic in efforts to protect Trout Creek and other surrounding natural resources.”

The release from the tribe and county said the tribe has been working since 2002 to stabilize the creek and restore its habitat. In 2009, it successfully released 3,000 trout back into a healthy Trout Creek.

Looking for answers

The Hobart village board met in closed session Friday, Jan. 10, and passed a formal motion inviting Streckenbach to a meeting on or before Feb. 4 to discuss the future of the interchange project.

According to Hobart officials, no county official has met in an open meeting with the full board regarding the interchange project since this most recent agreement.

“Realizing the worsening situation, Brown County suggested some compromises,” said the letter to Hobart residents from village leaders. “Many were hard to accept. We knew, though, that we needed to compromise to make the Interchange happen. After weeks of negotiating, we reluctantly gave up the name we had for the new road in Hobart because the DOT gave the Tribe naming rights through the property they purchased. We surrendered jurisdictional control of the new road to the county, losing the opportunity to place utilities along the side of the road during construction, meaning we will incur additional costs when they are installed.”

The county saying the Oneida Nation secured the highway interchange, which it did in the joint press release, without contributing at all financially for the project costs, upsets Hobart Village President Rich Heidel.

“The tribe does not get to be an arsonist and set everything on fire and then turn around a few weeks later, play fireman and put everything out and then become the hero,” he said.

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