For over 20 years, residents and users of Blue Lake Road have overwhelmingly supported – and petitioned – the Town of Minocqua to lower the road’s speed limit from 45 mph to 35 mph. While Blue Lake Road heading west from Agawak Road eventually saw its speed limit reduced in 2004 after 3 well-signed petitions and an 11-year battle, the 1.3-mile stretch of the road from Highway 51 to Agawak Road currently remains at 45 mph. Why are town electors, residents, and visitors so concerned about 1.3 miles of road? And why does Minocqua Town Chairman Mark Hartzheim seem so determined to disregard the entreaties his constituents?
THE ROAD MORE TRAVELED
Blue Lake Road is a favored corridor that connects Highway 51 to Highway 70 via Mercer Lake Road, while passing quaint businesses and pastoral homes. Heading west from Highway 51, before Hixon Road, Blue Lake Road passes a large excavated pit area on the north side of the street. Serious rigs travel this stretch of road, hauling heavy loads of gravel material, which is often used for construction projects. Next, Blue Lake Road travels past a charming home with a yard filled with brightly colored children’s toys. This is the sight of a daycare service, where parents and young children are often spotted milling about.
Blue Lake Road then bisects the Bearskin Trail, a popular state trail and thoroughfare for snowmobilers, bicyclists, and hikers. This crossing is so popular, in fact, that many regular road users know to slow way down when approaching the trail crossing as pine boughs (particularly from the western view), and heavy vegetation obstruct visibility and leave little opportunity to safely stop in the occasional occurrence that bicyclists and snowmobilers fail to heed trail signs. The need to come to a complete stop at this intersection is unfortunately easy for intermittent trail users to discount, no matter their preferred means of transportation, as the crossing’s hard perpendicular angle banked by dense forests conceal the dangers of the road until virtually the point where the trail’s gravel bed meets the road’s pavement.
- Blue Lake Road has the fasted posted speed limit at a Bearskin Trail crossing in Minocqua.
Bue Lake Road then passes a quiet cemetery and an auto body shop. Multiple horse owners and horse enthusiasts populate the area here, and a private trail entrance along this section of Blue Lake Road means that the road often sees heavy equestrian activity. In the summer months, this stretch of Blue Lake Road also accommodates substantial pre-teen and teen usage as it services the needs of Minocqua mainstay Camp Agawak. Many distance runners additionally use this portion of Blue Lake Road in the morning and in the evening hours for their workouts.
Residents and road users have consistently recognized that the diverse and unique activity on Blue Lake Road – be it in the form of runners, bikers, snowmobilers, campers, children, teens, horseback riders, or excavating crews – should be adequately honored by lowering the speed limit to 45 mph. Town electors recognize that safe communities are strong communities, and have consistently asked the Minocqua Board of Supervisors to join with them in valuing their constituents and town guests on Blue Lake Road.
CLOSE MEASURE CRUSHED BY HARTZHEIM, THOMPSON, AND JENNINGS
The most recent iteration of the discussion to reduce the speed limit on Blue Lake Road came in October of 2008, when a town employee, and fellow road user, added the item to the Board of Supervisors’ regular agenda. Joe Handrick, chairman at the time, and current supervisor Sue Heil supported the measure, which came up short of success due to crushing blows by then-supervisor Mark Hartzheim, John Thompson, and Bryan Jennings. Hartzheim and Thompson felt that 35 mph was too slow for that stretch of Blue Lake Road and John Thompson “didn’t care one way or the other.” (Incidentally, the proposal to lower the speed limit was supported by Police Chief Andy Gee and Public Works Director Butch Welch.)
CHAIRMAN MARK HARTZHEIM DIGS IN, STANDS BY PRIOR SPEED VOTE
In an effort to better understand the seemingly casual attitudes of some members of the Minocqua Board of Supervisors about community safety on Blue Lake Road, Blue Lake Free Press inquired at the 6/19/12 Regular Town Board Meeting about what the supervisors were looking for in terms of a effective presentation regarding citizens requesting speed limit reductions on Blue Lake Road. Supervisor Billy Fried, a newer member of the board, seemed very receptive to the idea of voting in favor of a speed limit reduction.
Supervisor Bryan Jennings also seemed receptive to revisiting the idea and offered suggestions about what he would look for in a presentation, such as road safety issues. When posed with the notion that everything he was looking for was already presented in 2008, and he still previously voted against lowering the speed limit, Jennings straightforwardly said that sometimes he makes mistakes in voting. Supervisor John Thompson seemed fixated by the idea that somehow snowmobiles were involved, and Supervisor Sue Heil did not immediately comment.
Minocqua Town Chairman Mark Hartzheim made it clear that he would not be swayed by a petition to lower the speed limit on Blue Lake Road, and abruptly ended the discussion, stating that the topic was not on the printed agenda and therefore the board would not be engaging in a back-and-forth discussion on the matter. In the days following the board meeting, Blue Lake Free Press contacted Mr. Hartzheim to clarify why he would not be persuaded by a petition to lower the speed limit on Blue Lake Road.
BLUE LAKE FREE PRESS: Why, specifically, don’t you support lowering the speed limit on Blue Lake Road to 35 mph?
CHAIRMAN HARTZHEIM: This is a 1.25-mile stretch of straight and level roadway. I believe the long-established 45 MPH speed limit is appropriate and in my opinion there is no compelling reason to change it. It being that the 45 MPH speed limit is reasonable, I have no desire to create lawbreakers out of the majority of the traveling public by reducing it. There are always examples of speeders and reckless drivers no matter what the speed limit, and those individuals need to be dealt with. I do favor extra patrol work in areas where speeding is a problem, since this has been shown to slow repeat offenders down.
BLUE LAKE FREE PRESS: How does your lack of support on this issue align with your previous voting history on the town board insofar as petitions submitted by the public to the board or surveys conducted by the town regarding Minocqua road issues (speed limits, use, ATVs, etc.)?
CHAIRMAN HARTZHEIM: It aligns in that each road is considered on a case-by-case basis. There is no specific formula or checklist that necessitates change, but rather a totality of information.
BLUE LAKE FREE PRESS: Is your position about the viability of a petition numerically quantifiable? For example, X% of Minocqua residents (or taxpayers, or electors, or persons living in a particular ward) would need to sign a petition for you to consider it viable. If so, what formula do you use?
CHAIRMAN HARTZHEIM: While petitions are useful, and we do consider them, they are only one source of information. The road belongs to everyone in town. We as elected officials have to do what we believe is in the best interests of the town as a whole and vote our conscience. Again, a totality of information is considered. Whether a fatality occurred or a daycare facility is present does not automatically trigger the need for a reduced speed limit.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Hartzheim was very prompt in answering follow-up questions from BLFP. What struck me the most about Mr. Hartzheim’s responses is that he appears not to recognize that the issue on Blue Lake Road is about speed, not speeding. The majority of road users have demonstrated throughout the years via appeals to the town board that they want the speed limit reduced. Does Mr. Hartzheim consider Blue Lake Road users incompetent or unwilling to heed changes that they, themselves, want in speed limit postings? Further, it seems Mr. Hartzheim places a greater value on protecting the livelihoods of potential future lawbreakers over the wellbeing of bicyclists, snowmobilers, campers, children, runners, equestrians, motorists, trail users, and excavating crews on Blue Lake Road. Mr. Hartzheim, that 1.3-mile stretch of Blue Lake Road may be straight, but it sure isn’t safe.