A little more than 12 years ago, the Grant County Board went through handling one of the most debated zoning issues in a quarter century with a proposal to place a cluster of homes on Town of Platteville agricultural land owned by George Lazarus.
Votes were taken, one decision was reversed because a supermajority of the board was needed, and a number of stories were written about the debate.
The board will revisit that parcel Tuesday when it reviews a rezoning request for seven parcels on eight acres proposed to be taken out of farmland preservation so they may be developed for homes.
If the Dec. 2 meeting of the county’s Land and Water Conservation, Zoning and Sanitation Board is any indication, the item should receive a lot of discussion.
Things became heated at times on the proposal, and whether or not the development of the property fit in the spirit of the county’s 2011 farmland preservation ordinance.
Presenting for Lazarus was surveyor Aaron Austin, who showed the development was an extension of the residential development that took place a dozen years ago. At the time, one of the conditions of the town’s approval was that the original lots be sold and developed before any more could be added. With those lots developed, the idea was continue acre lots along Hidden Lane, which was the road constructed for the original development.
“We do not want to pursue any more development in this area, just finish up where the road is at,” said Austin.
Things have been contentious on the local level for the proposal, as was shown at the board meeting. Reviewed first officially by the Town of Platteville Plan Commission, the proposal was unanimously approved. When it got to the Town of Platteville Board, the three-member panel voted unanimously against the proposal, feeling it would take prime farmland out of production.
Zoning chairman Mark Stead was perplexed by such a split between the zoning commission and town board. “How can there be such a difference in opinion from the view of the plan commission to the town board?” he asked.
One of the members of the town board, Dale Hood, is a member of the Grant County Board, and sits on the zoning committee.
“The plan commission seemed stuck on the road situation, as the road is already in,” said Hood. “They did not take into consideration the ag end of it. Why, I don’t know.”
Some of those in favor of the proposal who spoke at the meeting felt that the town board’s opposition may come from someplace else.
“I am opposed that you throw something in there that would make it harder for Mr. Lazarus to get approved,” said Platteville resident Rocky Skempf during the public hearing. Skempf noted that two of the town board members own adjoining properties to the site at issue, presenting conflicts of interest, and personalities have created friction between Lazarus and the town board.
“I am nervous in my position as a landowner, that it could happen to me too,” said Skempf. “I think he [Lazarus] has done what he is supposed to do.”
Also speaking in favor of the project was rural Darlington resident Emmett Reilly, who felt the efforts of clustering the homes helped preserve land. “If I had the money and I wanted to move to Platteville, this would be the perfect place,” he said.
Claiming he was there with a neutral position was Platteville resident and former county supervisor David Klar, who had an issue with how the town board handled the item.
Klar told the committee that he was at a meeting one month before the Plan Commission was to meet on the subject, where the Town Board discussed the issue at length without its being on the agenda.
“They went into the discussion of this rezone at length,” said Klar. “It wasn’t on the agenda, which is a violation of open meeting laws, which is why they are being investigated.”
When asked, Hood would not confirm any investigation. “That is immaterial at this time,” replied Hood.
Stead told the rest of the committee he conferred with the Town of Platteville clerk and confirmed that the town board was being investigated for possible Open Meetings Law violations.
“I feel there are comments that have been made that I certainly do not agree with,” said town Sup. Dan Smith, denying the town board violated open meeting laws. “It was talked about because it was a future agenda item,” Smith continued, but not to the degree Klar claimed.
Klar disputed the town board’s reasoning that the development went against farmland preservation comprehensive plan (or Smart Growth) ordinances. Having helped write the ordinance at the time, he said, “it meets our Smart Growth plan, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. This is the least productive land on that farm.”
Smith disputed the viability of the property, noting it had corn on it this year, and past parcels developed around it did not see any rocks being dug up during excavation. “This area being proposed is totally agricultural field,” he said.
Austin said Lazarus was willing to bulldoze wooded property in another section of the farm to replace the farmland lost due to the development.
Joseph Bowden, who lives in one of the homes in the development, submitted a letter of opposition. “There was essentially no discussion on land use, or the requirements for rezoning land out of the farmland preservation zoning district,” he said in his letter read before the zoning committee.
Bowden did not sign a covenant that was given to other homeowners in the development that stated they would not oppose future development surrounding the homes, according to Smith.
“So, what you are saying is that the people who have already built there should have known when they built there that it was the intent of Lazarus to develop the land towards the road,” said Stead.
“I think you are reading something into that there,” retorted Smith.
As part of a recommendation from the county’s legal counsel, the committee went through a checklist on whether the proposal met with goals set forward by the farmland preservation ordinance. Some of the items included whether the proposal was compliant with the county comprehensive plan, whether it was consistent with farmland preservation policy, whether development will be directed where it will cause minimum disruption to established farm areas, or will not cause damage to environmentally sensitive areas, and not impair future agricultural is in that zoning district.
Sup. Pat Schroeder of Lancaster was unhappy with the new checklist, feeling that the questions raised at the town level meant they had a higher threshold to follow.
“I think its a pretty sad we are getting penalized for what has been done,” he said during the first review of the meeting.
After a review of the checklist, the committee voted with a roll call vote. Sup. Lester Jantzen of Potosi voted against the recommendation, while Hood abstained from the vote. The remainder of the committee approved the item.
Hood questioned the roll call vote.
“Why do we need a roll call vote for that, and a voice vote for anything else?” he asked.
“We can request a roll call vote at any time,” replied Schroeder.
“I think it’s setting a precedent,” said Hood.
“I don’t think it’s setting a precedent,” said Stead. “We have had roll call votes many times before.”