Lake Geneva City Council Prepares to Settle Lawsuit

Location of Geneva Ridge land in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

The City of Lake Geneva’s council room was overflowing on August 22.2011 with over 150 concerned citizens from Lake Geneva and the surrounding townships speaking in opposition to the council’s plan to change Lake Geneva’s Smart  growth comprehensive plan passed in 2009.  The change that was being sought by Geneva Ridge developers was a planned amendment so Lake Geneva could, according to Mark Sansonetti, attorney representing the developers, “expand its services, and city water services on to the property, the developer also made his intent clear to utilize that capacity.”

The change would increase the develop-able area of the city by 22% and is very controversial because in 2008 a referendum was held about a proposed “Mirbeau-Hummel” project for this site, 77% of the residents of Lake Geneva opposed the land use. The project was one of many taking place in the United States during the real estate bubble, which the Wall Street Journal labeled as “faux downtowns”. It was noted that these types of projects “could be bad news for real downtowns, especially those competing with redevelopment sites near the city center.”

After the referendum the city council voted unanimously against project, and later on December 14, 2009 adopted its first Smart Growth Comprehensive Plan, also by unanimous vote.  When Geneva Ridge Development was rejected by the city, both Mirbeau, and Geneva Ridge filed suit against the city claiming the referendum violated their rights.

A total of 36 citizens spoke against the change in the plan including 3 experts on the environment, one person spoke in favor. The following are highlights from the evening.

 

Bob Klockars, Chairman of the Geneva Lake Conservancy
“Many of the (Geneva Lake) communities have rejected this project in the past. This is one large significant piece of land and it impacts the other lake communities by its runoff its water shed. The wetlands and oaks of this land are a vital conservation resource for the lake.  This is the single most important economic resource for our community. If it is impacted and destroyed our environmental character goes away, our economic engine dries up. We urge you to resist the pressure to grant the request on the Hummel property….This is a very bad idea.”

Jim Hanny, Lake Geneva
“On Dec 14 2009 after considerable expense and public hearings.. The city council adopted its Smart Growth Comprehensive Plan as required by state statues. The adoption was by a unanimous vote.  After Geneva Ridge Development was rejected by the city, both Mirbeau, which is not part of this request and Geneva Ridge filed suit against the city claiming the referendum violated their rights… When I read the city is being represented by an insurance company I had to ask, Who is representing the city? It is entirely possible that a settlement of the lawsuit would be in the best interest of the insurance company but contrary to the best interest of the city? I hope the city has its own attorney representing it.”

“The comprehensive plan can only be changed under three conditions. One is growth, which has been refuted, the other is minor changes. If you can find an attorney who says changing 22% of the land area of the city is minor, I can find a bunch of them who says it is not.”

“The contention that a non-binding plebiscite violated developer rights is an insult to democratic government and it should be vigorously defended by the city.”

Charles Colman with the Geneva Lake Conservancy.
“If you change the zoning on a property the value of the property changes right away…The only properties that are moving in this area are the gigundo ones on the lake. There is no off the lake property that has any traction anywhere.…You got to provide ambulances, schools, water, septic. … I believe it will create additional costs on the city which will create additional taxpayer expense…. The taxpayers of Lake Geneva (LG) will spend more and more on this property.”

Dona Palmer, Lake Geneva
“A secret settlement for the Hummel lawsuit. An inexplicable need to open the Smart Growth Plan which was to be good for 20 years. The passage of this new plan would, surprise, favorably   impact Hummel.

Bill Huntress, Lake Geneva and formal Alderman
“I get a kick when these developers come down here and they say I want to be a good neighbor and its going to be upscale and high class. We have Summerhaven, Edgewood Hills, Wrightwood, 40 acres up to Hillmore, and huge subdivision on Curtis St., Townline road, all upside down. Roads broken, empty houses, they have town up every decent property in this city… These guys at Mirbeau shouldn’t be taking us to Federal Court; they should be sending us thank you cards for delaying them. Because by delaying them we saved them a lot of money, because we would have 700 acres torn up out there, just like all these other subdivisions.”  He then addressed the council. “Don’t let anybody bully you, don’t let anybody threaten you. Threatening is for goons let the city’s insurance company earn their money. I would much rather take my chances with them, than I would the two attorneys from Elkhorn… about 95% of the time in these court cases they vote in favor of the municipalities.”

Richard Marra, Town of Linn.
“The intent of this lawsuit you have on your hands is not to win it but to use it as leverage. Leverage to get you to change the map….The law specifically prohibits contract zoning throughout the State of Wisconsin, this has been made clear buy the highest court in Wisconsin. It is not possible to be clever, cute, or finesse this issue. It is not enough to say that this is not quite the same. The fact of the matter is if any deal has been made to settle this case it should be disclosed to the people of this community, disclosed tonight. …..The district court is overseeing the case has already and clearly stated its opinions that the case is NOT GETTING BETTER WITH AGE. Very rarely does a court tip its hand so clearly that the allegations are meritless…..if you change this map it is a slap in the face of the citizens of Lake Geneva who you have been reminded several times voted 77% No. 77% tells a very compelling story…..If there is to be no rezoning for 20 years, there is no reason to change the map…. If you change the map you will be sued by the people to change the zoning…. I urge you to not trade one law suit for bigger and more law suits.

“With a 30 year supply of approved housing there is no reason to change the map. With 77% of the citizens voting no there is no reason for a map change. With the current economic and market conditions there is no reason to change the map…..If you care about this rare and unique place we call Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, there is no reason to change the map.”

“My 13 year old son who has been quizzing me for the past two years said in response when we discussed the 77% response by the citizens. Said “Dad this is a democracy they can’t do that, they can’t allow this development.”

Dave Williams, Lake Geneva.
When the council passed the Comprehensive plan in 2009 “you were sending a message to these property owners don’t expect to do anything with this for 20 years you are sort of at the end of the list, we have other properties we would rather develop…. What sort of message are you sending if you suddenly reverse that? What you’re telling them at that point is if you sue us you can leapfrog over every other development in the city. “

“The developers should have known what to expect with this property. Before there was a south neighborhood plan, and before there was an annexation, the annexation was turned down flat twice. That was a strong message to these people who already owned the property, and they didn’t come to us first. They can to the Town of Linn and when they didn’t get the development they sort from the Town of Linn then they came to the city. So when they brought it, it was in the Town of Linn, which they admit. …There was one plan submitted with those two attempted annexations and it was for a golf course community with 1200 homes on it. And that plan was turned down…. So to suddenly say that they had this expectation to develop this property is just plain wrong. As far as the South neighborhood plan after they were annexed they came in with the Mirbeau -Hummel plan that was not in compliance with the South Neighborhood Plan. They had 65 acres that they wanted to develop commercially….they didn’t comply with the South Neighborhood Plan anyway…They wanted all sort of changes in the min. lot width, they wanted to go higher than the zoning ordinance. So the one chance they had to comply with the master plan they ignored it anyway. So to say they have been led astray is contrary to history.”

Mark Leahy, Lake Geneva
“When someone says it is not about the money, and then it is about the money.” When you change the zoning classification you change the value of the property.

Dick Malmin, local political pundit.

“The Judge all, but told Hummel he couldn’t win his lawsuit in Court, so now when the case goes to mediation,  all of a sudden the City Council is being told to make a deal with the devil and give Hummel his demand for a change in the City Map to make the lawsuit go away. WHY?”

“In mediation, it turns out, there are 3 parties: Mr. Hummel, Insurance Company, City of Lake Geneva.”

“So who represented the City in Mediation? We know the Insurance Co. didn’t. The Insurance Company is a business that doesn’t want to pay anything. They don’t want the expense of going to court so what happens is that they join up with Hummel to put the burden on the City to give Hummel his Map Change. It doesn’t cost the Insurance Company anything and remember; they don’t have a heart, nor care about the City or the Lake”

“You people on the Council represent the Heart and the interest of the City.  Why aren’t you people standing up to this ridiculous “settlement agreement” and telling Hummel to forget the Settlement Deal –it’s bad for the City—go back to Court and let the Court decide.”

“And don’t get caught up in the linguistic masturbation that this deal is not zoning. Hummel’s Settlement Deal is Mapping and the first stage in the ZONING PROCESS.  The Mirbeau lawsuit is now in mediation and don’t you think they’ll be asking for the actual zoning? Say yes to Hummel now and you’ll be forced to say yes to Mirbeau and the actual zoning a month from now.”

“When Mr. Jordan (the city businesses administer) said there was no deal that was like Bill Clinton saying “I did not have sexual Relations with that woman-Miss Lewanski.” Call it what you want, but there is a Deal. I know there is a Deal because some of you have actually admitted it to me. I won’t identify anyone tonight because it will all come out in court testimony as part of future lawsuits.  “

“The Big Deal started when Chesen recommended the referendum. You were walked right into the lawsuit back then and you’re going to do it again tonight if you vote to give the map change to Mr. Hummel. This time the lawsuits will pile up from injured parties around the Lake and everyone will be included.”

“And now Hummel tells us there is a conflict between the City Planning Map and the text of the plan, so Hummel wants you to change the map to conform to the text. That’s absurd!”

“No, we need to change the text to conform to the map. Just look at the meeting of Dec. 14th 2009 when the Council discussed and unanimously approved the map for the Hummel property. When the differences between the Text and the existing Map came up, Mr. Slaveny (the City Planner) said “Trust me and trust my professionalism to make all these changes and corrections to conform to what you’ve agreed on.”A promise, unfortunately, never kept. It’s all here in the minutes of the meeting.”

  • Always remember Hummel bought cheap Farm Land with a history of environmental protection that was zoned for farm Land-Not neighborhood Development Property.
        • Don’t risk breaking State Law that mandates you to follow the Comprehensive Plan.
        • Don’t risk violating Contract Zoning prohibitions because you have an understanding that voting yes tonight get’s the City out of the lawsuit.
        • Don’t violate the city’s Comprehensive Plan  that says you can only make changes that are:
            • -minor,
            • -for unique opportunities
            • -or are justified by actual Growth.

Mr. Hummel’s map change is none of these

        • Don’t Risk your chances for Re Election
        • Don’t risk a Recall
        • Don’t risk being charged with a Conflict of Interest because a majority of you are actually named in the lawsuit.
        • Don’t Risk your businesses because people will become angry if you ignore them tonight
        • Don’t Risk putting yourself in jeopardy of personal law suits and paying your own legal fees. Just ask Arlene what that is like.
        • Don’t Risk putting City in Jeopardy of many more, but legitimate, lawsuits that the Insurance Company may not cover.
        • Don’t Violate the faith that the people put in you

“Do the right and smart thing — tell Hummel to go back to Court to settle his ridiculous charges once and for all.”

 

Mike Mooney, Town of Merton, Waukesha County.
Was the sole person to speak in favor of the change in the plan. His argument was the same one that has been used by countless developers and their backers. More development will increase the tax base.

 

City Planner Mike Slavney started the discussion after the public hearing was closed with the following observation. “If we look at a per acre measurement the lower density development generally has a lower impact on the environment, but if we look on a per capital basis, dense urban development has a lower impact on the environment. “  He also pointed out that a series of land divisions that were approved for this property were not recorded at the County.

Mr. Slavney also pointed out that, “Even where the zoning request is shown on the land use map the city is allowed the ability to say No based on timing issues… If this land use map amendment would go through it would enable a consideration of a future zonings map amendment. It would not require an approval of that amendment, but it would enable a consideration. Of course if the land use map called for example Agricultural use (as it currently is) it would not be able to change it to another use.”

Alderman Terry O’Neil the sole Alderman who spoke up and tried to stop the change to the plan noted that according to our smart growth plan page 129 “ amendments are generally as minor changes to the plans map. 710 acres is not a minor change, if the council wants to change the comprehensive plan we change the comprehensive plan, we don’t ignore it.”

Mr. Slavney agreed with Alderman O’Neil, he cautioned, “What is being requested is substantial change to the plan and not a minor change to the plan… if you are going to approve this amendment it would be prudent to indicate why you are approving the amendment.”

Beside Alderman O’Neil the following City Council Members enlightened the public with their wisdom.

Alderman Tom Hartz:  Pointed out that in December of 2009 the number of lots available for development was 1117, due to the housing bust a number of proposed projects have expired without being built. For example: Hillmore, Summerhaven, StoneCreek East. Now the number of lots is only 621. At the height of the housing bubble in 2005, 2006 about 25 and 20 single family homes were being built per year.
Alderman Hartz went on to say, “When the developer brought his last plan before the plan commission, and I was on it, I voted against it. When this plan (The Comprehensive Plan) was approved and I was on the Planning Commission, I voted for it. It was then changed at the city council level.”

“It seems that whatever happens there will be a lawsuit. Right now there is a $16K that is hanging over each resident of the city.”

Alderman Ellen Kehoe: “Each of you as property owners is protected when you go to buy a piece of property by the law . . . and I pray that you will respect our intelligence.”

Alderman Frank Marcella: Tried to justify the results of the referendum held in 2008, “77% of the minority of the people who responded to the survey (referendum) when they did it… 150 people are here, how many people are in Lake Geneva? That breaks down to 35 people per distinct… take the phone calls that I received, which was 15, and take out the people from Linn who called me that gives me about 10 people, which is .1 of 1% of the people in my distinct. So the idea that if somebody in this Council chooses to vote for this they would be voting against the will of the people of Lake Geneva would be a distortion of the fact, and would not be really true… that is the truth of it all.”

Mayor Jim Connors: Mr. Connors lead the Vote No committee during the 2008 referendum, he was not Mayor at the time. “The recent ruling by the Dept. of Administration related to the Town of Bloomfield, they will be probably preceding and going to a referendum and decide if they want to incorporate and those properties are no longer a viable alternative for the city.”

“We are not changing the zoning. It would allow someone should come before us will would make an informed decision because that is our duty.”

The final vote on the subject did not take place to 10:45pm that evening, which is past a lot of small town Wisconsin’s bed time. But this turned out not to be the final vote after all, sleepy Cheeseheads sometimes make mistakes.

The vote was:

Todd Krause: Yes

Tom Hartz:  No

William Mott:  Yes

Frank Marsala: Yes

Ellyn Kehoe: Yes

Alan Kupsik: Yes

Arleen Krohn: No

Terry O’Neill: No

Before the vote, Alderman O’Neil started to read a prepared statement, but was cautioned by City Attorney Draper partway through. Remember, all prior discussion about these lawsuits had been held in closed session, and so cannot be divulged to the public. But Mr. O’Neil did get this much out:

“What has been said in darkness, hidden from the public, confined behind closed doors and in closed session cannot stand the light of day. This Council has been boxed into a corner with only two choices. Do things legally and suffer the consequences or do things illegally and suffer the consequences.”

Part 1 of 3.

 

 

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