Never give up. That could be the slogan for a local citizens’ group that worked for over 10-years on its issue. Thanks to their persistence, wetlands along an 18 mile corridor are safe and the area’s character and way of life are protected. In September, a US District Court judge ruled in favor of Highway J Citizens Group noting that the government agencies needed to consider alternatives and environmental impacts. At issue was an approved expansion of Highway 164 (formerly Highway J) in the sensitive Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin, turning a semi-rural two-lane, 45 mile per hour road into a four lane highway. Recognizing how highway expansions can be related to urban sprawl that erodes rural life and destroys natural areas, a group of farmers, home- owners, and rural and suburban people came together to protect their resources and community’s character, forming the Highway J Citizens Group.
“Battles like these are long-term—you gotta’ stay in the ring for the full 15 rounds,” stated Jeff Gonyo, a steering committee member for the Highway J Citizens Group.
The road expansion project was proposed based on a traffic study that expected traffic volume to reach 13,000 cars a day by 2018. Although highway agencies were interested in planning for traffic, Highway J Citizens Group felt from the beginning that their planning did not adequately address public concerns about urbanization and its potential impacts.
First proposed in 1999, the Highway J Citizens Group first organized with concerns about safety. As they reviewed the proposals they soon learned that valuable wetlands and many threatened and endangered plants would be harmed by the project. The last 10 years have been like a roller coaster ride with some high points and low points.
One of the lowest points came early on in the project with the realization that the agencies working on the road seemed to be going through the motions of taking public comments and holding public meetings, but that the input and concerns shared by citizens were not addressed. This loss of faith in the government process was hard to take. Fortunately, the citizens involved knew that their concerns had merit and that they would somehow make their voices heard.
When Highway J Citizens Group hit low points they didn’t give up. Jeff credits the core group of 15 leaders for their tenacity. The all volunteer core group remained very energetic. When the tasks seemed overwhelming, the core group would step-up and divide the tasks needed to keep moving forward. This group also helped to keep the entire membership engaged. Another tactic that Highway J used to overcome disappointments was to organize citizen rallies to help reenergize the group. Last year, Highway J organized a rally with over 200 people participating to request that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation honor a previous commitment to reduce the speed limit to 45 miles per hour. The rally reenergized the community and Highway J’s volunteers.
It was a long road to travel and the journey may not be over. Highway J is anticipating that there may be an appeal. But they will be prepared to keep asking questions, presenting facts, and suggesting reasonable alternatives.
“Whenever we needed help, Freshwater Future was there. Without their support we couldn’t have paid our technical and attorney’s fees or put out our newsletter to get folks involved. I strongly encourage any group taking on one of these battles— which takes years—to get support from Freshwater Future.”
To find out how Freshwater Future can help you, contact Cheryl Mendoza, Associate Director, at email@example.com.