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2002-11-10
Baraboo. Citizens Take City to Court to Stop Sloppy Decision in Menard's Case.

On July 23, 2002, Newsflash informed readers of a battle taking place in Baraboo, Wisconsin against a Menard's home improvement superstore. Menard's is a 160 store chain based in the midwest, with headquarters in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The company is privately held. A group of residents, calling themselves Citizens Against Big Box Sprawl (CABBS) formed to oppose the project at the Planning Commission and City Council stage. On August 5, 2002, Menards applied to the City of Baraboo for a conditional use permit (CUP), located on forty acres off of Highway 12 . Menards claimed that its 200,000 s.f. store would not result in a substantial or undue adverse impact on the surrounding area. They said their store would actually have a positive effect on real estate values, and that a megastore was compatible with the surrounding properties in the neighborhood, which include a mix of uses including agricultural, retail, light industrial, and residential. Menards argued that the potential benefits of the use would outweigh all potential adverse impacts, and that their store would generate jobs and revenues for the community and make Baraboo a regional shopping center, and destination for shoppers from surrounding communities. According to CABBS, the company submitted no information supporting the self-serving statements made in its application. On September 17, 2002, the Plan Commission voted 6-1 to grant Menards the requested CUP. It did not issue any written findings showing how the Plan Commission believed the benefits of the Menards outweighed the burdens. On October 8, 2002, the Baraboo Common Council held a public hearing to address the Menards CUP. Approximately eighteen citizens spoke against Menards, and approximately six people spoke in support of it. Among the concerns citizens identified were the economic impacts on downtown of a retail store on the edge of town, paving over the area's high-quality soil, inadequate storm water drainage, blemishing the Baraboo area's unique natural beauty with a big box store, low-paying jobs, increased traffic, the fact that Menards would be the first development to breach the natural "bowl" Baraboo sits in, lighting, the tendency of big box stores to draw money out of the community, harm to existing local businesses, and the impact to the community should Menards build a store and then close it. Some citizens also requested that Baraboo accept an offer by the University of Wisconsin-Extension to conduct a free study on the potential economic impacts of a Menards on the community. The Council voted to approve the CUP application at their October 8, 2002 meeting on a 6-3 vote. One Alderman stated: "The Common Council made no written findings that the benefits of the proposed Menards outweighed the project's adverse impacts. " On October 15, 2002, the Plan Commission went back and changed the minutes for its September 17, 2002 meeting to state that "the potential public benefits of the Menard's conditional use outweigh any and all potential adverse impacts of this proposed conditional use...and, therefore, the conditional use of the Menard, Inc. for a home improvement store be granted with the amendments approved by the Commission." On November 7th, the CABBS filed a petition in the Sauk County Circuit Court stating that the Council "failed to follow the Baraboo Zoning Code and Common Law Procedures in Granting the CUP" because they "failed to state in writing any findings of fact that the potential benefits of the proposed Menards outweighed any and all potential adverse impacts of the project." They called the Plan Commission's decision "an incomplete and unsupported decision" . The citizens also charged that the city violated the Plaintiffs' "common law right to due process and fair play" because at least two Alderman made statements prior to and during the October 8, 2002 hearing that prejudged Menard's CUP application and denied Plaintiffs the right to an impartial decisionmaker. Under Wisconsin state law, "a clear statement suggesting that a decision has already been reached, or prejudged, should suffice to invalidate a decision." CABBS claims that the Council decision "was arbitrary and capricious because the Common Council members exercised their will and not their judgment." The petition asks the Court to reverse the decision of the Council. The city now has 45 days to respond to the petition.

What you can do: This kind of sloppy process and poorly-crafted decision-making is state of the art zoning review in this country. Frequently, appointed planning and zoning officials have little expertise or background in the permit area they rule over, and make decisions based more on political expedience or personal bias. In this case, some members made statements during the case that indicated their desire to speed up the decision on the proposal. Ironically, their actions have now helped residents slow down the process. The lack of written findings is appalling, but common also. For a copy of the complaint filed by CABBS, contact info@sprawl-busters.com










 
 
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