It’s not often you see a city sidewalk running alongside an active farm field flush with corn or soybeans.
Later this year, that will be the scene near Bob Naatz’s old farmhouse on Ruger Avenue.
Janesville, Rock County and the state Department of Transportation are collaborating on a project to widen Ruger Avenue between Wright Road and Highway 14, add bike lanes and space for on-street parking, and install sidewalks and curb-and-gutter improvements.
It’s the sidewalk and curb-and-gutter improvements that have Naatz and his wife, Lynda Naatz Richter, preparing for an expense that could approach six figures.
Residents along the 1-mile stretch of Ruger in question must pay for those installations. Most live in single-family homes with relatively short road frontages; the Naatz family, meanwhile, will have to pay for a quarter-mile stretch of sidewalk that runs alongside a farm field.
The city and county are splitting a payment of roughly $13,000 to ease the family’s financial burden, including that of Sue Dahl, Naatz’s sister who lives down the road and co-owns the farmland property with Bob and a third sibling, Fred.
But the $13,000 won’t cover the total cost of installation. The exact total is unknown and won’t be finalized until a contractor is selected. Bids open March 12, city Engineering Director Mike Payne said.
Residents could expect costs similar to a 2017 project on Austin Road that included some of the same elements as Ruger Avenue. For that project, property owners paid $39 per linear foot of sidewalk and $19 per linear foot of curb and gutter, Payne said.
Construction costs have risen since then, but because the Ruger Avenue project is twice as long as the one on Austin Road, it might mitigate some overhead expenses, he said.
Under the rates used on the Austin Road project, it would cost at least $76,000 to do the work on the quarter-mile of land Naatz has along Ruger Avenue.
Naatz said he looked at rates for several other sidewalk and curb-and-gutter projects and calculated a rough estimate of $100,000.
The farm might still be active, but it’s less than 20 acres. Naatz hires local farmer Kirk Leach to plant and harvest each year. They split the profits, which amount to only about $800 annually for Naatz, he said.
Naatz and his wife own rental properties that provide income, but that money was meant for their approaching retirement, not for putting a sidewalk and curb in front of their property.
“We’ll be able to come up with the money somehow, but it will be like all the money that we’re supposed to be getting that we could be using for improving the houses, improving our own lives, putting our kids through college—is gone,” he said. “That’s the hard part of it. It’s money out of the bank that we were kind of counting on.”
The century-old farm, which once totaled 400 acres and served as dairy, pig, chicken and produce operations before steadily dwindling, can’t be developed because it lies in the floodplain of nearby Blackhawk Creek. That significantly reduces the land’s value, Naatz said.
Rock County Public Works Director Duane Jorgenson said a few people shared concerns about sidewalk costs at a public forum last year. A design team tried to make adjustments based on the feedback, but many in attendance were looking forward to the pockmarked road getting an upgrade, he said.
Naatz agreed that resurfacing the road is needed. He doesn’t mind the sidewalk in front of his home, either, but maintaining a long stretch of sidewalk along his field is an unwanted responsibility.
He is meeting with City Manager Mark Freitag next week to discuss payment plan options. The city usually offers a five-year repayment schedule.
If the land could be developed, maybe Naatz would consider selling. But the flood risk makes it more complicated.
“For us (the land is) not an investment. It’s our old farm,” he said. “And we’re holding onto it because it’s our family’s farm and we can’t sell it. We’re making the best of what we’ve got.”