By Shereen Siewert

Some property owners in Wausau say council members were misled when they approved a large-scale plan that includes a trail extension from Sturgeon Eddy Road to Thomas Street, which appears to have been fast-tracked for completion.

Economic Development Director Chris Schock said the city is “currently hiring a firm to work with property owners to plan specific design options/alternatives for the recommended segments, of which the corridor south of Thomas to Sturgeon Eddy was one of the top recommendations.” The southeastern extension was identified as the highest priority portion of the trail, based on the direct ariverside connection to extend the River Edge Parkway.

Designers, Schock said, will work to “mitigate concerns with potential designs that they might like.”

But some affected homeowners say they aren’t interested in any potential designs and want the proposal rejected outright.

“We’re tired of taxpayer money going out the window for projects that aren’t even vetted,” said Jennifer Dougherty, a member of the condo association board at East Ridge Condos on Grand Avenue. “We wouldn’t even know about it if we hadn’t heard it on the news.”

In all, 32 property owners at East Ridge have deeded access to an area that includes a stairway and dock along the river’s edge. This, Dougherty said, was a significant draw when she and her husband bought their condo last year.

Members of the previous Wausau City Council in March approved a 63-page, long-term master plan that identifies expansion opportunities for the River Edge Parkway. In the document, project planners say the Thomas Street to Sturgeon Eddy Road segment would wind through private property that is “unusable” by property owners. But property owners say that characterization — which led council members to believe there would be no reason to object — is false.

“If you would have taken a canoe down the river, you would have easily seen that isn’t the case,” said Jennifer’s husband, Dan Dougherty.

The Doughertys, and several other residents at East Ridge, are now questioning why council members weren’t given an accurate picture of their current property use, and they want the process to stop before the city spends money on a design team.

Dist. 1 Alderman Pat Peckham, who represents the residents involved, said residents were not contacted because the plan is only a preliminary one.

“Ms. Dougherty and I did have a miscommunication regarding whether there is some sort of plan in place,” Peckham wrote, in an email to Wausau Pilot & Review and several city officials. “Thinking that she would have picked up from the TV news story that a broad plan for the miles-long trail system had been adopted earlier this year, I told her there was no specific plan for this proposed new section. Having spoken with her since, I believe the difference in understanding came from what each of us considers ‘a plan.'”

But the Doughertys say Peckham is focusing on semantics, not on the broader issue: simply, that residents with the most at stake were left out of the planning process.

Newly-elected Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian said City Hall, with a new administration in place, now has the opportunity to put citizens’ interests and welfare at the forefront of policy.

“Despite this being a long-term plan, if residents in a section of a plan option have strong concerns and are expressing that they will be adversely impacted, I want to hear those concerns and will oppose any such option,” Kilian said.

Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who was elected after the plan was adopted, said she wants “robust public input on big projects, and this will be no different.”

“Just to be clear, there will be no surprises for residents here,” Rosenberg said. “City officials, staff, and any consultants who are eventually tasked with this project will reach out to the community, there will be public meetings addressing these concepts, and residents will be encouraged to give feedback on any plans before any votes to proceed.”

Kilian also said that spending related to the expansion of any part of the trail in the near future, including those portions in his own district, would be fiscally irresponsible.

“While it is always good to plan, there are numerous unmet basic needs in Wausau that should be prioritized over elective projects like the River Edge Parkway” Kilian said. “We stand on the precipice of an economic recession with numerous local jobs and businesses at risk. Taxpayer dollars should be reserved for fundamentals and necessities as we plan for increasingly difficult times.”

Rosenberg said there is no money in the budget to proceed with the project at this time.

But Peckham said he hopes everyone involved will keep an open mind and continue to work together toward a solution.

“The fellow who told the city he’d like to build condos north of Winton Street along the river specifically asked if the trail could be extended northward between the residences and the shore,” Peckham wrote. “He viewed trail access as a plus, something the residents would value. With some nicely designed security fencing and possibly other measures, the residents of East Ridge Condominiums might decide they’d like that access and they’d like to see family groups waving to them as they enjoy the view from their deck.”

The Doughertys, however, said that reasoning might make sense for someone in the planning stages of a condo project, but a security fence and foot or bike traffic is a tough sell for current homeowners who value their privacy.

“It doesn’t seem like anyone did their due diligence,” Dan Dougerty said.