Council Overturns Plan Commission, Approves East Side Development
Four on council forego city attorney’s concerns for burden of proof in denying project
By Brandi Makuski
It took nearly two-and-a-half hours of discussion, but seven members of the Common Council on Monday overturned another body’s decision to deny construction of town homes on the city’s east side.
The council voted to reverse a March 6 decision by the City Plan Commission denying a conditional use permit for the construction of a four-building rental complex on a privately owned Badger Ave./Hwy. 10 East lot. The development, comprised of 1400-square-foot town homes, will be constructed on a small section of upland surrounded by wetland close to Ice Hawks Arena — and it was potential wetland encroachment that worried some the most.
“As it stands now, the town house buildings are located between wetlands; a likely flight path for birds,” said Dr. Kent Hall, a retired UWSP biology professor. “Nationwide, the second-leading killer of birds is buildings. These apartments could be a major killer of birds.”
Hall added while “we have no data to form a hypothesis one way or another,” it was “impossible” for him to support this project, without further study of the potential impact on bird populations.
Protections for birds was a recurring theme throughout the evening. Neighborhood resident Jennifer Burton said she walks through Parkdale Park daily, and she’s identified 74 specifies of birds and various forms of wildlife.
“Any kind of development that comes in here will change that forever for those species, and for the people who enjoy seeing that,” Burton said, adding she’d gathered signatures from 80 nearby residents opposed to the project based on concerns for the wildlife and increased traffic.
Jeff Lukasavige, a lifelong local resident who lives near the development area, said he’s concerned about the impacts of noise, light pollution and traffic to the neighborhood.
“When we moved in, it was marshland out there,” he said. “The deer were wandering through there, all kinds of wildlife. Then the soccer fields went in, and then the lights came, and the mowing came…in the evening now, the people in those apartments can come in our backyard at 10 o’clock at night and read the newspaper with the lights that illuminate the entire neighborhood from the stadium lights that went up there.”
Lukasavige added he believes the decision is a very emotional one for those who live in the neighborhood.
“The mayor said it; you choose where you want to live. We chose to live on the outskirts of town,” he said. “I feel like you’re all listening to me, but I feel powerless. I don’t think it’s a proper use of that land.”
But city officials worried facts related to the project were getting lost in that swell of emotion. Community Development Director Michael Ostrowski said Point of Beginning, a Stevens Point-based engineering firm, along with Amherst-based Blenker Companies, worked with not only the city, but also with the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources and Army Corps of Engineers to ensure the project was the least-invasive it could possibly be with respect to the wetland surrounding it.
“This is a low-density development we’re looking to do,” said Jason Blenker from Blenker Companies. “We’re trying to keep a minimum amount of development on this property, as opposed to some of the possibilities that could happen on this site in terms of commercial use.”
Blenker added while he understood the city’s housing study was not yet complete, his company hears requests daily for upper-scale rental housing, which he said the project would provide.
Ostrowski said the property is zoned B5, and therefore open to several permitted uses that do not require city approval, to include a dry cleaning facility, a repair shop and commercial equipment sales. Many of the permitted uses could permanently destroy nearby wetlands, he said, adding if the property owners wanted, they could simply clear-cut the entire property and “the city wouldn’t have anything to say about it.”
Two former aldermen also attended Monday’s meeting in support of the development. Roger Trzebiatowski, who represented District 7 from 2005 until retiring in 2015, said if the project wasn’t approved, the council was doing more harm to the city than good.
“You need the revenue. If this project fails, there are so many things that could go in there tomorrow, and it will never come back to council, it will never come back to Plan Commission; you won’t have a thing to say about it,” Trzebiatowski said. “Right now, you have a project you do have some say over.”
He also pointed out the city has frequently caused wildlife to change patterns due to development.
“But this project is a win-win; I can’t believe you guys don’t see the value in it.”
Tony Patton, who represented District 5 until being ousted by Ald. Cathy Dugan last April, called the project a “good buffer to the wetlands.”
He also pointed out some on the council were recent transplants to the community and likely unaware Parkdale owners had already preserved land in the area, and previously donated land to the city.
“That’s what business needs from council; they need your support so they can continue to do those things,” Patton said. “If we don’t continue to support business, when you have a project like this that’s right for the area, things are going to fall apart, and you’re not going to get investors. I think that gets forgotten when we try to oppose projects.”
Mayor Mike Wiza had virtually every city department head address the council on Monday to reassert the scope of the project, the need for the new tax revenue it would provide and the protections it gave to the surrounding wetlands. More than that, City Attorney Andrew Beveridge outlined some legal concerns for the city unless the council could show cause for denying the permit.
“We’ve heard a lot of information and opinions, but what the council needs to be considering are the conditional use standards,” Beveridge said. “When a conditional use permit is approved by the council, you have findings [of fact] from the staff that explain in detail why it meets each one of the [city’s] standards. Here, you have findings from the Community Development Department that it meets the standards and should be approved.”
Beveridge then pointed to the minutes of the March 6 Plan Commission meeting, saying they reflected commissioners’ reasons for denying the permit were based on opinion rather than facts, and unless cause could be shown for denying the permit — such as the project breaking a city ordinance or state law — the developers could challenge the council’s decision in a court of law.
“This is solely a conditional use permit, which means you’re acting as a judge, based on the findings and written ordinance,” Beveridge said. “You need to take the reports you’ve seen, the evidence you’ve heard, and apply the law to it.”
Council President Mike Phillips said he supported the project, not just because of the estimated additional $100,000 in new tax revenue it would generate, but because it was actually adding to the city’s green space.
“I know there’s a petition, I never saw it, but no city should be run by petition,” he said. “We’ve got almost 700 acres of park land; the Green Circle is about 30 miles,” he said. “By doing this project, we’re adding about three more acres to that park land. Last year, $1.57 million was budgeted for our parks.”
Council members David Shorr, Cathy Dugan, Mary McComb and Mary Kneebone voted to deny the permit. The majority — Council members Garrett Ryan, George Doxtator, Heidi Oberstat, Meleesa Johnson, Jeremy Slowinksi, Shaun Morrow and Council President Mike Phillips all voted to approve.
Dates of construction have yet to be determined. Check back for updates.