City intervenes with Bridgeport incorporation filing

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The city of Prairie du Chien lies within the orange area of this map, and the town of Bridgeport surrounds it.

By Correne Martin

A border battle of sorts has transpired between Bridgeport Township and the city of Prairie du Chien.

Bridgeport filed an incorporation petition with Crawford County Circuit Court on April 19 and published a notice of such filing in the Courier Press on July 22, taking the initial steps necessary to become a village. The city of Prairie du Chien subsequently intervened, approving, at an Aug. 4 council meeting, a resolution indicating willingness to annex the entire township into the city, as authorized by state statute, because it’s a party of interest to the petition.

“We want to protect our borders from Prairie du Chien,” Bridgeport Town Chairman John Karnopp said, noting that the city’s annexation of property for the new hospital sparked the township’s action toward incorporation.

“There was nothing sinister about the hospital annexation,” Prairie du Chien City Administrator Aaron Kramer said. “If anything, it simply allowed the city a better opportunity to help the hospital and that was the primary factor for the annexation. To have that result in the situation we’re sitting in now is unfortunate.”

As the Courier Press first reported in March 2014, the Prairie du Chien Common Council extended an invitation to Bridgeport Township to discuss a merger of their water and sewer utilities. Karnopp said the town was prepared to meet and have those discussions if the city agreed not to annex any more territory from Bridgeport. However, the Courier article stated that the city was only interested in negotiating a possible merger of utilities, not annexation.

“Bridgeport becoming a village would do some damage to the city’s economic development potential,” Kramer stated. “In essence, Bridgeport would use city water and sewer services (under an agreement that expires in summer of 2017), possibly putting stress on our capacity, to try and attract development that could potentially come to the city or relocate from the city.”

According to Wisconsin municipal government laws, a village can create tax incremental finance (TIF) districts, where a town cannot, allowing it greater ability to attract new business and industry, therefore bolstering growth. A village, unlike a town, can also expand its boundaries through annexation of unincorporated territory.

Karnopp said about 60 Bridgeport residents signed the incorporation petition, which is now awaiting a circuit court hearing. One was scheduled for Aug. 6 but canceled because the city’s attorney, Lara Czajkowski Higgins, is the daughter of Crawford County Judge Jim Czajkowski. Richland County Judge William Sharp was next expected to hear the case, however Bridgeport’s attorney, James Hammes, filed a motion to substitute. Now, Grant County Judge Robert Van De Hey has been assigned to the hearing in Crawford County court.

“I have had conversations with [Hammes]. He and I agree it would be prudent for both sets of officials to sit down and have discussions on some of their border issues and perhaps come to an agreement for the future,” Attorney Czajkowski Higgins said. Currently, both entities await advice from their legal counsel and plans for joint discussions regarding boundary agreements and/or joint utility districts. Both Karnopp and Kramer expressed a willingness to participate in those discussions. The court hearing may or may not happen thereafter.

If the hearing eventually occurs and the circuit court determines Bridgeport meets certain incorporation criteria, the petition would move on to the state Incorporation Review Board, Czajkowski Higgins explained. At that point, the township would need to submit a $25,000 fee to the Incorporation Review Board.

“I think that’s an important piece for taxpayers and petition signers to understand,” she said.

The process would only continue if the Incorporation Review Board found that village standards were met and recommended approval. The court would then have to grant the petition and order a referendum. If the majority of township voters were in favor, the village would be certified and established.

Thus far, Karnopp said, the township has spent a “minimal” amount of money on attorney’s fees in this process.

Though the city has offered annexation of the entire township, about 23.2 square miles, Karnopp declared that Bridgeport would have to agree to such annexation. “Of course that wouldn’t happen,” he said.
Ultimately, both units of government wish to do what is in their best interests.

“The city isn’t in a position to limit itself forever to the south in terms of growth if it has property owners who may want to annex in for city services,” Czajkowski Higgins noted. “The city just wants to participate in this process to monitor what’s happening.”

Karnopp maintains that Bridgeport feels the same way about its boundaries. “We don’t want to give up any more land to the city,” he said. “We want a boundary agreement.”

The town of Bridgeport also shares borders with the towns of Prairie du Chien and Wauzeka in Crawford County as well as the towns of Wyalusing and Millville in Grant County across the Wisconsin River.

A previous incorporation attempt by Bridgeport in 2001 was denied by the court on several terms. According to the determination, it was mainly due to 1) a minimally present community identity indistinguishable from Prairie du Chien; 2) many essential features of a community (schools, churches, parks, post office and other governmental facilities, along with public open space) that were lacking within the “community center,” aka the general hub of businesses from Riverside Square to Wal-Mart; and 3) a lesser amount of services compared to similarly-situated villages.

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