Council offers assurances on NE neighborhood

By: 
Kurt Gutknecht

When it met Feb. 26, the Common Council authorized city planners to prepare an application for including the 660-acre tract near U.S. Highway 14 and the Beltline into the city’s urban service area. Getting regional approval for the expansion is expected to take six to eight months or longer, and it is the first step in a lengthy process required before development can start.

The Council’s action prompted criticism from County Executive Joe Parisi and former County Executive Kathleen Falk, who echoed concerns that development was inconsistent with orderly development and could have detrimental effects on the groundwater and surface runoff that nourishes Lake Waubesa.

Ald. Richard Bloomquist objected to the “politicization” of the process and joined several alders in offering assurances that development would not be allowed to proceed if there were evidence that potential problems couldn’t be effectively avoided or mitigated.

The council approved an amendment that required planners to indicate how fire protection and emergency medical service could be provided to the Northeast Neighborhood, as well as the cost of such services. It rejected an amendment to require planners to show how development in the four neighborhoods already in the urban service area could be staged effectively and avoid adversely affecting the market for existing homes.

Former Mayor Jay Allen, who is again a candidate for mayor, warned that approval might occur at an “astronomical speed” under pressure from developers, mirroring what he said were the rapid approval of previous requests. Allen had previously characterized the council’s actions as catering to the interests of developers.

Bloomquist objected to Allen’s “hit and run” characterizations and said charges that the city was acting at the behest of developers was “absolutely the farthest thing from the truth. He said the nearly 1,200 acres already in the urban service area didn’t mean there was a surplus of developable land, since much of it might never be developed, especially considering the city’s reluctance to exercise its power of eminent domain.

Mayor Shawn Pfaff said the residential development in Northeast Neighborhood would be essential in fostering commercial development in the adjacent Uptown Neighborhood, as well as increasing the tax base to pay for the new $18 million interchange at U.S. Hwy. 14.

Pfaff pressed Ald. Steve Arnold to join him in assuring residents that development of the Northeast Neighborhood was “environmentally proper,” citing Arnold’s role in crafting the original neighborhood plan and vote to approve it. Arnold said he agreed with the plan to develop along the eastern rail line, but he still had reservations about the effects of climate change on groundwater and surface runoff.

Pfaff and Phil Sveum, a developer, assured Cal DeWitt, a University of Wisconsin-Madison environmental scientist, that his opinions would be solicited when new studies provide additional information about groundwater and surface runoff. DeWitt warned that approval should be based on “how the (groundwater) system works, rather than how it works,” and said there were “some very serious warning signs” of adverse consequences.

Several people spoke in opposition to the resolution, citing environmental concerns and the impact on property taxes. They had expressed similar reservations when the Plan Commission considered the resolution on Feb. 19, and were disappointed that commissioners hadn’t addressed their concerns.

But Ald. Carol Poole, who chairs the Plan Commission, said only the resolution, not the merits of the neighborhood plan, was on the agenda, so a discussion of the plan itself wasn’t appropriate.

Development would only occur after “a huge, long process,” she said.

Science will indicate whether development should occur, said Bloomquist.

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