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Marching to the brew pub PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 10 December 2014 19:04

The Port Common Council moved in lock step closer to selling public harbor land for a brew pub, but left an escape route that could save the city from a mistake

The Port Washington Common Council put on an impressive demonstration of government by unanimous vote at its meeting last week. Dealing with an issue of surpassing importance and significant controversy, in the face of a chamber packed with opponents of the council’s proposed action, not a single alderman raised a question, expressed a doubt or revealed so much as a scintilla of hesitancy before voting 7-0 to put public lakefront land on the market as a site for a brew pub.

    The more than 30 members of the public who attended the meeting didn’t get a debate or even a discussion of the pros and cons of selling publicly owned land at the harbor for commercial development.

    What they did get was comments from several aldermen maintaining that their vote would not commit the city to selling the land but was meant merely to, as one alderman put it, “see if there’s an idea out there” for the commercial use of what is now a parking lot at the north end of the downtown marina. Another alderman, Council President Dan Becker, emphasized, “This action tonight commits the city to absolutely nothing.”

    It is doubtful those comments succeeded in soothing the objectors. The remarkably fast pace of the move to declare the land surplus and offer it for sale—approvals by the Community Development Authority, Plan Commission and Common Council in a span of only two weeks—has left many in the city with the perception that city officials are on a mission to quickly convert the public harbor land to a brew pub site.

    Yet the statement that the council vote to declare the parking lot surplus property does not commit the city to selling the land is absolutely true. Council members would do well to remember that, because it can be their out, their way of escaping a mistake that Port Washington history is not likely to judge kindly.

    The process, nonetheless, continues to move at speed. Requests for proposals to buy the land will soon be distributed to potential buyers. Offers will likely come in. But trading the public’s lake views and proximity to the water for something as banal as a brew pub would be such an uneven exchange that any offers received should be set aside until a thorough reconsideration of the use of the parking lot land can be conducted.

    An exercise in creating a new downtown development plan led to an epiphany among officials that the parking lot between Washington Street and the inner harbor is not really needed to park cars. How that morphed into a judgment that a brew pub would be a highest and best use of the land defies understanding.

    In land-use decisions made in many communities fortunate enough to be located beside oceans, lakes and rivers, publicly owned waterside land is treated is an asset of incalculable value to be developed only for public use in recreation or aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty. Respected studies have shown that this approach, besides protecting public resources, increases the value of nearby commercial development.

    A comprehensive plan for all of Port Washington’s lakefront land, both publicly and privately owned, is needed and could well conclude that sacrificing public land of significant natural value for commercial development would be a step backward by both economic and quality-of-life calculations.

    Even short of such a study, it stands to reason that the city government should keep control of the lakefront land the people own. Selling the parking lot for a brew pub or some similar use would close the door to the city ever taking advantage of better opportunities that would keep it in the public domain, such as the Kiwanis Club’s offer to create a park there at its expense or future options that could include institutional or cultural use of the property, with views and water access intact, in which the public would have a stake.

    Meanwhile, negative reaction to the council’s unanimous vote is building in the community—another reason it is good that, in the aldermen’s own words, the city is not committed to selling the harbor land.


 
Yes to mileage charge, no to confiscatory fees PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 03 December 2014 19:07

Lawmakers should back DOT plan to study a per-mile assessment for roads, but reject fees on new cars and electric cars and then cap highway spending

The fairest way to have users pay the costs of highway construction and maintenance is to collect a fee on miles traveled.

    There is a nod to that in the many-faceted transportation funding plan unveiled by Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb in November.

    The plan recommends changing state law to allow the DOT to require vehicle owners to report odometer readings when they renew their registrations. The idea is that the numbers gathered could pave the way for mileage charges in the future.

    It would be better if this were a recommendation for the real thing—a per-mile fee to be enacted as soon as possible to help the state cover its road-funding shortfall, as was recommended by a task force last year. Still, this is a start, one of the pieces of Gottlieb’s plan that should be approved by the Legislature.

    Besides its basic fairness, a mileage fee is appealing in that it could eliminate the need for two onerous provisions of the transportation funding plan—taxes on new car purchases and on hybrid and electric vehicles.

    Gottlieb is calling for charging new car buyers a fee of 2.5% of the suggested retail price for road funding. Essentially a road tax, it would cost the buyer of a $25,000 vehicle $625.

    The idea might make sense as a revenue source—it would raise about $150 million a year—but certainly not in any other way. It would be a disincentive to new vehicle buying that would hurt dealers, and it would impose a hardship on buyers of what is for most families a necessity of life (on top of a sales tax that adds 5.6% to the cost of cars in southeastern Wisconsin). What’s more, it’s unfair: New car and light truck buyers get no more benefit from roads than the used car buyers who would be exempt from the tax.

    Even less palatable in the financing plan is a proposal to extract a fee of $50 a year from owners of hybrid and electric vehicles. This would punish the state residents who buy vehicles that limit harmful emissions by using little or no fossil fuel. It would be an intrusion into the market that could discourage sales of the vehicles that are kindest to the environment.

    The fee idea derives from the fact that hybrids and electric vehicles pay little or none of the gas taxes that currently are the mainstay of road funding. An argument can be made that such vehicles deserve a break, but apart from that, the proposed $50 is confiscatory. Even with the higher rate Gottlieb is proposing for the gas tax, its average cost per car would be about $27 year.

    The per-mile fee the state should adopt would treat all vehicles the same regardless of the source of their engine power.

    The DOT secretary’s plan, however, continues to rely heavily on the gas tax. Gottlieb recommends a new formula with a base of 15.5 cents per gallon plus 8% of the average wholesale price of gasoline. The DOT estimates the new gas tax would be about 38 cents per gallon, about 5 cents a gallon higher than the current tax.

    Until a mileage tax can be applied, the gas tax is a practical and quite fair method of assessing drivers for road costs, and the increase is justified.

    Gottlieb’s financing plan is configured as an eclectic bundle of revenue-raising devices—including borrowing and dipping into general tax revenue for transportation—in the hope that enough of the recommendations will survive the Legislature’s sausage-making machine to generate the more than $2 billion the DOT wants for the next two years.

    The organizations WISPIRG, which advocates for consumers, and 1000 Friends, which promotes land use that discourages urban sprawl, say that amount is too much. Both argue persuasively that Wisconsin overspends on highways. They point out that the DOT does not account for the fact that people are driving less today than 10 years ago and thus its projections for future highway needs are inflated.

    Legislators should start to solve Gottlieb’s problem by making it smaller—by reducing highway spending.



 
Put the brakes on rush to sell public’s harbor land PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Tuesday, 25 November 2014 18:45

Land at the edge of the marina is too valuable as a public asset to sell for commercial development without a thorough study
of the consequences

When cities designate publicly owned land as surplus property to be sold to private bidders, the expectation might be that the land is a useless lot by the railroad tracks or an industrial brownfield that officials would like to get off the municipal books.

    But the public property the City of Port Washington is in the process of declaring surplus to be put on the market is one of the most valuable pieces of land in the city. Its value to its current owners, the citizens of Port Washington, is its location at the edge of the water in the downtown marina-park complex.


    Whether selling the land, which is currently a parking lot at the end of the north harbor slip, is the right thing to do is at best an open question that needs further research and discussion, but the way the city is going at it there is no time for that. Transferring the land from public to private ownership is on a lightning-fast track.        


    Three days after the Community Development Authority approved selling the land as a site for a restaurant or brew pub, the Plan Commission voted to declare the land surplus property. The proposal was immediately put on the Common Council agenda for its next meeting on Dec. 2.


    Rather than ratifying the Plan Commission’s hasty action next week, the council should put the brakes on this extraordinarily fast-moving measure and table it for further study. There are many good reasons to do that, not the least of which is that it would counter the perception that the city government is trying to ram through an important change in lakefront access before the public has the opportunity to fully weigh its ramifications.


     With time for due diligence, Common Council members should consider the following reasons to be skeptical of the push to sell a valuable public asset:


    The move to sell the land grew out of the drafting of a new downtown development plan. The updated plan is needed and has some sound recommendations, but it focuses on commercial development and lacks a comprehensive vision for further development of public recreational uses of land in the marina complex. The land earmarked for sale could be a key part of that development.

    By encouraging private commercial development of a public waterfront space, the city is taking a route that has been rejected by many thriving waterside communities that have retained public ownership of such land and creatively developed it for public enjoyment, with the result that the value of adjacent commercial property has increased.

    The city now controls the future of the north slip parking lot. If it sells the land, it will lose some of that control. Even with zoning authority, it would have limited say in the design of the structure insinuated into what are now open views of the water.


    The expectations of officials for the commercial use of the land seem overly optimistic. There has been talk of a brew pub-restaurant on the parking lot being so wildly successful that it would be a year-round visitor destination. The reality is that restaurants are risky business. Port ought to know. The closing of Smith Bros. restaurant, which failed in spite of regional notoriety, a spectacular second-floor harbor view and the presence on its first floor of, yes, a brew pub, is a cautionary tale best not forgotten. The landmark building, vacant for years, was a civic embarrassment before it was rescued to become the home of the Duluth Trading Co. store. A restaurant-brew pub on the north slip site could be an attraction or another  embarrassment—a failing business slipping into decline and, finally, a vacant building on one of the city’s most prominent waterfront sites.


    It is obvious that parking cars is not a good use of the north slip site. With its proximity to the water and its expansive harbor and lake views, it should have been redesigned long ago as a landscaped space for public enjoyment of the beautiful heart-of-the-city marina complex. The attention focused on it now should be the impetus to make that happen.


    What is at stake is nothing less than the permanent loss to the public of an asset of incalculable intrinsic value. At the very least, the people of Port Washington deserve a careful, unhurried consideration of that possibility by their elected representatives.


 
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