With residents divided over the issue and the possible threat of a lawsuit, the Mequon common council approved the rezoning of a portion of land for the second phase of the Town Center project.
The land, located adjacent to the Mequon Police Station off Mequon Road and on the opposite side of the railroad tracks as the current Town Center, was rezoned to Town Center with a planned unit development (PUD) and land use plan map. The 5-2 vote at the Sept. 13 common council meeting followed a public comment section with one resident, Rachel Kruse, mentioning the possibility of a lawsuit against the city and aldermen individually for "not doing their fiduciary responsibility" and suggesting the plan was done behind closed doors.
"We're not exactly sure what it's going to be, but we're changing zoning anyway," Kruse stated.
Resident Ruth Kantrowitz moved to Mequon because of the "small-town feel." She, too, felt the project had been worked on behind closed doors, and suggested the city pause to find out what the residents really want.
Not everyone was opposed, however. Jon Safran, a nearly 25-year Mequon resident and member of the economic development board, said he understands the business climate in Mequon.
"(This project will) encourage Mequon to be an additional strong destination," he said.
Kelly Seaman moved to the Town Center area from the Third Ward in Milwaukee, calling Mequon's Town Center a "dynamic" environment. She said the quality of the Town Center is much higher than other similar offerings nearby, and that baby boomers are starting to move into apartments so this would allow them to stay in the community.
The architecture and other specifics of the project have not yet been finalized. Mequon's Director of Community Development Kim Tollefson said the project will return to the plan commission with actual building and site plans for approval.
Shaffer Development hopes to start construction in the spring with a projected completion date of January 2019.
Alderman John Hawkins said the city attorney keeps an "eagle eye" regarding the law and when the city can go into closed sessions.
Tollefson agreed, saying the city had the ability to hold closed sessions for certain elements of the project. One example of the city trying to be transparent she cited included the developer and city staff holding a meeting with the neighborhood regarding the project.
Alderwoman Connie Pukaite said the "process of planning the town center has been open, and public, and long," adding the project has been discussed at various levels since 2000. She said while much was done in open session, the prices, purchase, and/or selling of land were discussed in closed session. Additionally, interviews of finalists to develop the land were also held privately due to "developer's proprietary information" they didn't want other developers knowing, Pukaite said.
The owner of Shaffer Development, Cindy Shaffer, said she has done a "significant amount of outreach for this project," citing three market studies as well as making herself available recently at Colectivo, 11205 N. Cedarburg Road, recently for a few hours to address any questions from residents. She said she wanted this project, and specifically the apartments, to "be something special."
Alderman Robert Strzelczyk said Shaffer Development has been very transparent, something he said isn't common for a developer.
"(They're) all about the quality of the development," Strzelczyk said.
Another issue brought up was the use of tax incremental district funding. Tollefson said the TIF was created in 2008, saying the majority of the incentives are "pay as you go" with the development required for anything to take effect. Residents were concerned with whether taxpayers would have to pay the TIF debt if the development fails.
Mayor Dan Abendroth said they would.
However, the money has already been borrowed "a long time ago," Alderman John Wirth said.
The money has to be paid back either with the help of a development or straight from the current base of taxpayers.
"The money's borrowed, the money's owed, and so is the interest," said Strzelczyk.
He said the taxpayers are already on the hook and the city needs a development on this site sooner rather than later. This development, according to Strzelczyk, "single-handedly covers the TIF."
Shaffer said the project would generate more than $425,000 in residential and commercial tax revenue per year.
With a large portion of the project being apartments and townhomes and a current plan of 12 units per acre, many residents were also concerned with the density of the development. Concerns with parking, impact on police and fire, as well as school overcrowding were mentioned.
Alderman Dale Mayr agreed the project seemed too dense, saying he wanted the number of apartments cut back. He added he still doesn't see the desired amenities or retail.
"It hasn't really gone in the direction I thought it would," he said.
Alderman Mark Gierl agreed, saying the plan is "quite a bit different than what was voted on in the concept plan," citing more rental units and less retail.
Not everyone on the council agreed, however. Wirth said the city is ending up with what they approved in 2005 in relation to the design guidelines. While he hopes more retail is added, he called the apartments "high end." He said at this point, it was "too late to say no."
He wasn't alone in this position.
"You have come through with what the council wanted," said Alderwoman Pam Adams.
She said the city made a commitment years ago and it's not going to change direction now.
Pukaite said Mequon didn't have a town center and now they do and a city center usually has more density. She added she's been a citizen of Mequon for about 50 years and when she came, it was a farm community.
"The farmers of this community supported development in ways that took away their farmland," she said. "You develop for the future."