Mequon — After nearly four hours of presentations, claims, counterclaims, impassioned resident testimony — some fiery, some indignant and some tearful — and deliberation, the Planning Commission on Monday gridlocked on a 4-4 vote and failed to make a recommendation to the Common Council regarding River Club of Mequon owner Tom Weickardt's proposal to build a 19-home subdivision on a 42-acre lot along the Milwaukee River.
Commissioners LeRoy Bessler and Dave Fuchs, along with Alderwoman Pam Adams and Mayor Dan Abendroth, voted against Weickardt's plan; commissioners Brian Parrish, John Mason, John Stoker and Chuck Western voted for it.
Before the Common Council takes up the matter in April, Abendroth said he will be negotiating with the Ozaukee Land Trust in an effort to have the city purchase the 42-acre lot for the purposes of conservation.
Weickardt's newest pitch for the 19-home subdivision is similar to a plan voted down by the Planning Commission in 2012, though this time he is willing to put into perpetuity open-space easements throughout the entire Ville Du Parc neighborhood and forgo any other future developments, as well as donate a tract of land along the Milwaukee River to the city. The new deal constitutes Weickardt's latest attempt to win over the neighbors, various Ville Du Parc homeowners associations and elected officials.
To a certain extent, the effort was a success as 37 residents registered speaker cards in support of Weickardt's plan. Many of them spoke in favor of the proposal, as well as its increase to the city tax base, and said the city should support Weickardt, whose investment in the River Club has revitalized the area.
"This is a compromise that's in the best interests of the city of Mequon," said Ville Du Parc resident Greg Bell. "Certainly it's in the best interests of the people of Ville Du Parc."
On the other hand, 30 residents registered speaker cards in opposition to the plan, among them a number of homeowners from the Deer Trail Estates subdivision, whose land is tied to the site of Weickardt's proposed development through a much debated — and recently, litigated — open-space easement. They questioned the "quid pro quo" nature of Weickardt's proposal, described his tactics as heavy handed and said approval of the plan threatens the legitimacy of open-space easements around the city.
"What does it say to the rest of Mequon, to the other easement properties?" said resident Corley Davis, who lives across the street from the proposed subdivision. "It says the easements aren't worth the paper they're printed on."
Chief among the proposal's critics was Abendroth himself, who was a member of the Common Council in 1988 and recalls setting aside the 42-acre lot as a condition of approval for the Deer Trail Estates subdivision.
"I see no reason to back out of those commitments," Abendroth said. "Once you make a commitment like that, and back out of it, your credibility is junk."
In an effort keep the 42 acres open space, Abendroth said he has been in talks with the Ozaukee Land Trust and will meet with representatives of the trust later this week to begin negotiations.
While Weickardt said he would be "prepared to listen to reasonable offers" from the city or trust, he contended a subdivision would contribute more to the city through added tax revenue, economic activity and children in the school system.
Preceding the commission's split vote was a several-hours-long stretch of testimony from city residents for and against the project.
The opponents, as they have in the past, emphasized the environmentally sensitive nature of the 42-acre site and its proximity to the river as reasons to deny the request. Outspoken project opponent Wendy Porterfield tearfully asked the commission to "consider the voices of the many and not the pocketbook of one."
Deer Trail Estates resident Becky Schaefer criticized what she called Weickardt's attempts to marginalize the opposition, thinly veiled threats and heavy-handed negotiation tactics.
"He has no qualms about pitting neighbors against neighbors for his own benefit," Schaefer said.
Schaefer, other project opponents and several commissioners said the issue of the open-space easements and the subdivision should be separate.
Still unknown is whether a formal protest petition filed by Deer Trail Estates owners in 2012 is still valid. That petition would require a super majority, or six of eight, vote at the Common Council to approve the project. City Attorney John DeStefanis said he does not know if the petition is still valid but will know by the time the council takes up the matter in April.
Weickardt speaks out
Other Ville Du Parc residents, including several from Deer Trail Estates, praised Weickardt's investment in the community and implored the Planning Commission to approve the request. They also lauded Weickardt for his willingness to put the remainder of the Ville Du Parc open-space easements, several of which have expired, into perpetuity.
"The clarity that can be brought to the easements, the potential for clear and defined land use through the lands that would be available to all the residents of Ville Du Parc, would be a real positive," said resident Bob Orth.
In an uncharacteristic move — he usually communicates through legal and public relations representatives — Weickardt eventually took the stand and addressed the crowd in his defense, sharing the story of how he came to own the club; how he believed he could develop the land because the easement was misfiled and the land mislabeled; and how he has subsequently been vilified.
"I did everything I could and I'm being accused of being a bully because I didn't know or should have known (about the easement)," Weickardt said. "...I'm trying to eliminate some of my debt so this club can remain viable. If it doesn't remain viable, it doesn't help anyone in Ville Du Parc."
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Public hearing, Common Council deliberation on River Club subdivision proposal
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 8
WHERE: Mequon City Hall, 11333 N. Cedarburg Rd.
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