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When local government is outgunned PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 26 March 2014 16:25

Saukville proved to be no match for a powerful corporation in a fight to control land use in line with its plan for growth

The authority of small municipalities to regulate land use is no match for corporate power.

    We refer anyone who doubts that statement to the saga of Kwik Trip and the Village of Saukville.

    The story began in 2012 when Saukville officials told Kwik Trip, a billion-dollar corporation, that it could not build a complex containing a gas station, convenience store and car wash on land at the northwest corner of Highway 33 and Foster Street.

    It ended on March 13, 2014, when the Saukville Plan Commission voted to approve a conditional-use permit that will allow Kwik Trip to build its gas station complex.

    How did that happen? The answer is simple: The billion-dollar corporation would not take no for an answer. Unlike ordinary citizens who think no means no when their application for a conditional-use permit is denied, Kwik Trip was confident that no just means try again—and again and again if necessary. It was so confident it bought the land without approval to build on it.

    Saukville’s first no was unequivocal. Village officials were adamant that they did not want a gas station on prime commercial land in a designated entertainment district where a hotel was the preferred use of the site targeted by Kwik Trip.

    As the company persisted, the village based its opposition on the fact that the gas station would violate a Saukville ordinance by being too close to a wetland that drains into the Milwaukee River.  

    To a corporation with Kwik Trip’s resources, this was a softball lob waiting to be hit out of the park. There are many ways for developers to get around wetland protection regulations; when Kwik Trip representatives appeared before the Plan Commission two weeks ago they presented a package of pollution mitigation measures that seemed to answer every wetland issue.

    Even so, the Plan Commission was less than enthusiastic. The motion to approve the permit almost failed for lack of a second. Two commission members who were strongly opposed to the development refused to take part in the voting. Finally, the permit was approved by a 5-0 vote.

    Much was made at the meeting, with repeated warnings from the village attorney, of the fact that the Plan Commission cannot base denial of a conditional-use permit for a business on a desire to protect similar businesses from competition. The owners of two gas station-convenience stores located near the Kwik Trip site predicted at a public hearing that Plan Commission approval would have devastating consequences for their businesses.

    It is true that the village government must not get involved in trying to regulate competition, but from a planning standpoint it certainly was justified in considering the impact Kwik Trip would have on the mix of businesses in one small part of the village. The vision Saukville officials had for developing the great potential of the village’s eastern commercial corridor surely did not include three gas station-convenience stores clustered in two blocks of Highway 33. But that is the reality they’re stuck with now.

    It may be small consolation, but Saukville officials who opposed Kwik Trip can at least point to some positive results from their battle. They were able to get the company to drop its plan for a diesel pumping station to service semis, which could have clogged Highway 33 with heavy truck traffic from I-43. At the village’s insistence, the traffic pattern and building design were improved over the original plan. And the company has pledged to help the village find a desirable buyer for land it owns adjacent to its gas station site, such as a hotel or restaurant.           

    It can be said too that though the development is not in the best interests of Saukville and Kwik Trip pulled no punches in getting its way, the community will at least be getting a corporate resident of good repute. The company is a well regarded family-owned business based in LaCrosse that has achieved remarkable success, with some 500 gas station-convenience stores and annual revenues approaching $5 billion.

    None of this changes the fact that the Plan Commission’s action gives Saukville a development it doesn’t want. Which is more evidence that corporate power trumps municipal authority.

 
Openness report: a mix of sun and clouds PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 15:47

Since James Madison set the standard, efforts to keep the bright light of public scrutiny on government have grown—with mixed results

“A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

    A few things have changed in the more than two centuries since James Madison made the statement that is frequently cited in asserting the essential need for freedom of information in a democratic government: The federal government and many states have passed laws requiring most government meetings and certain records to be open to the public. And an observance called Sunshine Week, timed to coincide with Madison’s birthday on March 16, has been created to emphasize the importance of open government.

    Some things have not changed: Ringing statements affirming the importance of freedom of information and an informed citizenry are still being made. And some government officials, even those who give lip service to those precepts, are still trying to thwart openness in government.


    Members of the Obama administration are among them. On taking office, the president pledged that his administration would increase transparency in government. It has done the opposite.

    A study by the Associated Press has found that officials in the Obama executive branch have censored documents or denied access to records requested under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act significantly more than previous administrations. Much of this was done in the name of national security.

    National security, of course, was the reason no one in government released any information that let the American people know their telephones calls were being monitored by the National Security Agency. It is only because of former NSA employee Edward Snowden’s infamous theft and public release of his employer’s records that everyone now knows.

    Call him traitor, whistle blower or computer geek coveting fame, but Snowden has revealed a secret of government so alarming that it has resulted in the closest thing to bipartisan cooperation seen in the current polarized Congress. A number of Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, have united in condemnation of NSA’s spying on innocent citizens. No proof has been presented by the administration that any of Snowden’s disclosures threatened the nation’s security.

    In Wisconsin, the Open Meetings and Public Records laws, though not enforced as aggressively as they should be, have set a standard for openness in government that many officials take seriously. One of the most encouraging examples in the past year was the Port Washington Common Council’s insistence that the Port Main Street board of directors comply with the Open Meetings Law. The Council saw it clearly: Main Street is partially funded by tax money; decisions on how that money is spent must be made in meetings open to the public. On the darker side, incursions into open-government principles around the state have often taken the form of bogus interpretation of open meetings law exemptions, imposition of bureaucratic hindrances to open records requests and legislation that narrows freedom of information.

    In the latter area, State Sen. Glenn Grothman, who represents parts of Ozaukee and Washington counties, has taken the shut-out-the-sunshine prize by sponsoring two bills that would restrict access to information that should be public. One would limit the court records available to the public on the Consolidated Court Automation Program (CCAP) website. The other would eliminate the requirement that political campaigns disclose the employer of donors of more than $100.    

    Since James Madison’s time, the temptation to obscure the public’s view of its government has continued to be irresistible to some officials.

    They succumb because openness—that sunshine we celebrate this week—makes their jobs harder. Public scrutiny is an irritation. It’s annoying to answer all of those questions and produce all of those documents, especially when, as is often the case, it leads to criticism and opposition.         

    Democracy wasn’t meant to be easy or orderly. It’s a frustrating, messy affair. And that is the price that has to be paid for government by the people.


 
A safe breakwater—and a safe dock PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 12 March 2014 15:00

The efforts of breakwater advocates pay off in a March surprise; meanwhile the Common Council sets the stage for a better idea for Coal Dock Park dock safety

Battered for months by gales and brutal seas, Port Washington’s outer harbor emerged from the onslaught of foul weather on a halcyon day last week to find calm water, a gentle breeze and a clear sky.

    A nautical metaphor is apt, for what happened on that day brought relief to Port Washington not unlike that felt by seafarers who have survived savage storms.

    The day was Tuesday, March 4, a day when good news arrived for two critical arms of the harbor—the north side breakwater and the south side Coal Dock Park dock.

    At 5 p.m., Rep. Tom Petri telephoned Ozaukee Press to report that the Army Corps of Engineers had found enough money to do what everyone said could not be done anytime soon—repair the breakwater this year to make it safe for fishermen and walkers to use.

    Just over three hours later the Common Council made a wise decision that could lead to the installation of a proper railing on the dangerous Coal Dock Park promenade.

     For the breakwater, the Corps found $950,000 in uncommitted funding. Its contractors will be working on projects near Port Washington this spring, which will help expedite the repairs here.

    The council’s decision, encouraged by a strong showing of citizens, was to withhold approval of the so-called “curb” that has been proposed as a safety measure for the promenade along Coal Dock Park’s 1,000-foot dock. The aldermen thus provided time for the city to come to the obvious and essential conclusion that a railing is needed to guard what is now an invitation to tragedy.

    As for the unexpected breakwater development, two aspects stand out:

    First, it wasn’t just good luck. Petri, Republican congressman from Fond du Lac whose district includes most of Ozaukee County, was instrumental in making it happen, and his efforts were a sterling example of effective constituent service. But Petri was involved, and the Corps of Engineers was primed to act, because officials and citizens of Port Washington (as well as this newspaper), relentlessly advocated for help for a structure whose failure would have been a disaster for the city. The result of this campaign, which was led by Mayor Tom Mlada, is that the squeaky wheel it dramatized is about to get a shot of WD40.


    Second, the $950,000 expenditure the Corps says will yield a repair that will be good for a number of years is eye-opening. Federal officials had led people to believe it would cost as much as $17 million to make the breakwater safe. It may yet cost that much to do the complete rebuilding of the structure that the Corps says will eventually be needed, but the fact that an immediate fix can be accomplished for a veritable pittance in federal money raises questions about why this wasn’t done sooner. In any case, advocates for breakwater rebuilding will need to stay focused to ensure that long-term improvements are done at some point.

    Meanwhile, the opportunity presented by the council’s questioning of the dock plan should be put to good use by the Coal Dock Committee by abandoning the misguided idea of a curb—a concrete construct that would be only two feet high—and getting to work on a railing.     

     The faulty rationale for avoiding the obvious choice of a railing has been that it would somehow interfere with access to this deep-water dock by large vessels, including tall ships. Yet a railing and vessel access are not mutually exclusive. Docks serving large ships elsewhere have guard rails. Surely one can be designed for Port Washington that accommodates both ships and the need for a basic safety measure for park users, while being aesthetically acceptable as part of the waterfront park.                

    A  hazard any time of the year, the unprotected dock standing some 10 feet above current-laced harbor waters has been especially treacherous this winter when it was an ice-covered slide angled toward water.         

    If the debate over the dock safety issue were a court case, attorneys for the pro-railing side could find a powerful piece of evidence in a photo on the city’s own website. The picture shows a Port Washington Street Department employee working on the Coal Dock Park promenade. The edge of the dock is guarded by a temporary railing.

    If a guard rail was needed to keep strong, adult city employees safe while working on the dock in ideal weather, how can anyone argue that a permanent railing is not needed to keep children and careless adults from falling into the water?

 
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