When it comes to development, residents pay attention
Last week's decision by Sho-Deen Construction to kill--at least temporarily--plans for a large-scale housing development in Delavan Township is the latest in a series of development projects in Walworth County that have failed to pass the scrutiny of public opinion.
The Intersport youth sports complex proposal for Elkhorn and the plan for the Yerkes property in Williams Bay are just two other high profile projects that come to mind.
The trend is both good and bad for Walworth County.
There are lessons to be learned from how these proposals played out, and all involved need to do their homework to find ways of having projects like these work for everyone.
As the Sho-Deen drama showed, the voice of public opinion is a factor in what gets done and what doesn't get done in Walworth County.
It may not be pretty, but strong public input in government decision making cannot be underestimated.
That's what Sho-Deen found out after they pitched a plan in August of 2005 for a housing development that would over time reach up to 6,000 housing units.
By January of this year, Sho-Deen had eliminated close to 1,230 of those units. Residents' opinions were split between those who saw an opportunity to improve the tax base and grow the community with those who feared what would happened to the township as they knew it.
As timing would have it, the election on April 3 became a referendum on the Sho-Deen plan, and a majority of voters spoke loud and clear.
Supervisors Larry Malsch and Dolores Nowak, who were seen as pro Sho-Deen, were voted out and Jim Wolfgram and Kay Franzen, who ran on their opposition to the development, took their seats.
Then, at the town's annual meeting April 10, Supervisor Bill Endisch announced that that he and his wife are moving to Whitewater and he will step down Monday, April 30.
That left town board Chairman John Pelletier, who was re-elected in April, as the main proponent of the Sho-Deen plan, but he declined the seat, saying the removal of Malsch and Nowak proved voters did not agree with his vision for the town
The public, having spoken, also needs to remember that development in and of itself isn't a bad thing.
Done right, new development brings with it economic vitality-a vitality needed to solidify the tax base and to provide jobs.
But any developer looking at a project in Walworth County now faces a high degree of uncertainty about possible success.
The biggest frustration that developers cite after seeing their plans washed down the drain is a perceived misunderstanding between what they claim their intentions were, and what the public believed their intentions were.
The same can be said for Mirbeau's proposal for the Yerkes property in Williams Bay.
After three public meetings made it clear there was not public support for Mirbeau's plan for a housing subdivision and resort on the property, owner Gary Dower never submitted a formal plan to the village.
So is there a way that everyone can get something they like out of these deals?
Possibly, but the approach obviously needs to change.
Developers need to be well aware that Walworth County residents aren't passive observers and certainly aren't pushovers when it comes to development projects. Developers, along with politicians and government staff, need to do a better job of anticipating public concerns and quickly addressing them.
Our elected officials need to be better negotiators as well and look out for the concerns of the public as well as providing an opportunity for economic growth. The $3,000-per-acre price for county land in the Intersport deal seemed to be the major sticking point. Could we have worked out a better deal and kept the project moving forward?
The community, having exercised their power of public opinion, now bears the responsibility of fully understanding the issues before them.
We need to continue to encourage economic growth that benefits both the business community and those who live there.
The University of Chicago still plans to sell the Yerkes property, and Sho-Deen has hinted that they'd like to start over with new plans for Walworth County. I'd also venture to guess they won't be growing soybeans on county land in Elkhorn forever either.
Ideally, everyone with a stake in the process can find a way to make it work.