Municipal Politicians Ditch Constituents in Favor of Local Special Interests

Updates on Franklin Strauss Brands project, Lakeside Park, and Kohler-Andrae.

It is comforting to assume that municipal governments, being the most “local,” are the most keenly responsive to the will of their constituents. But municipal politicians –members of city councils and county and village boards – are highly susceptible to pressure from the business community, often because they have close ties with local businesses and are themselves business owners.

Residents in the Milwaukee County suburb of Franklin are fighting a battle with their Common Council over Strauss Brands’ bid to construct a 152,035-square-foot meatpacking plant at West Loomis Road and Monarch Drive, next to the proposed Ryan Meadows subdivision.

The site now includes wetlands and is adjacent to a conservancy area. Eagles are routinely sighted there.

Last October, the Franklin Common Council voted down Strauss Brands’ bid to construct the plant. Strauss dropped its bid to locate at Milwaukee’s Century City business park due to local opposition. But the company appears to be doubling down when it comes to Franklin.

In November, the Franklin Common Council reversed its decision, with Mayor Steve Olsen providing a tie-breaking vote in favor of the project. It all came down to Ald. Shari Hanneman, who brought the motion for reconsideration and changed her vote because, she told MJS, she “got taken to the woodshed” by constituents. Those “constituents” were likely members of the Franklin Business Consortium, who said in an open letter that public meetings on the development were “detrimental to the health and future of Franklin businesses and thus the citizens of Franklin.” The letter further threatened that some businesses considering expansion in Franklin were now “questioning our trust in the city.”

According to a complaint filed in December by Franklin Community Advocates, the proposed slaughterhouse raises zoning concerns because of its proximity to a residential neighborhood. The complaint also alleges that Strauss Brands representatives engaged in a “vigorous” lobbying campaign with city politicians and even “met in secret” with Mayor Olsen, resulting in open meetings violations.

Residents in Franklin opposing the slaughterhouse formed Franklin Community Advocates. The group has gathered more than 5,000 signatures of residents opposed to the project, according to the debut issue of its newsletter.

In that same newsletter issue, some interesting facts about the proposed project come to light.  The Franklin Common Council approved the construction of a 152,035-square-foot facility. But FCA says that Strauss already has plans for an expansion that would enlarge the facility to 311,035 square feet, “in excess of 7 acres of buildings.”

The “massive new facility” the newsletter says, is “designed to slaughter initially up to 500 head of live cattle per day, near upscale residential areas, with wetlands and several significant watersheds nearby.”

To date, the newsletters says, “there has not been a single formal impact study provided by Strauss, or required by the City of Franklin, before giving approval of this project to move forward.”

Why the rush, City of Franklin? Surely the taxpayers have the right to know what’s going on?

A similar undue sense of haste applies in the City of Sheboygan. On December 15, the Sheboygan Plan Commission hastily approved a CUP for Kohler Company to build a controversial golf course on 247 acres of heavily eroded land that now contains a rare wetland and old growth beech forest, not to mention being an important stopover site for 10,000 migratory birds and home to 11 endangered, threatened, and species of concern.

Citizens were given only 30 days to file court documents objecting to the plan commissions hasty action – which was conditional on Kohler’s resolving all on-going litigation related to the proposed development. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin has not yet announced whether it will hear oral arguments on the suit Kohler brought against Friends of the Black River Forest standing in the way of a plan that also includes the seizure of 4 acres of Kohler-Andrae State Park to build an entrance to the golf course and a maintenance facility for storing equipment and chemicals.

The use of public property for private profit is also a concern in Fond du Lac, where residents were blindsided by the Alternate Master Plan introduced by the common council last spring, which detailed new plans for Lakeside Park that deviated from the Master Plan the city already had in place.

The city’s famed 400-acre Lakeside Park is now at risk. Designed in 1899 by O.C. Simmonds, it features 4 islands and a lighthouse peninsula and took nearly 30 years to complete.

The developers plan to locate a privately owned restaurant on the lighthouse peninsula and to create an amphitheater and “multi-purpose building” along with ample parking, in an area whose mature trees and historic lighthouse are treasured by many residents.

A newly formed group called Friends of Lakeside Park gathered thousands of signatures on petitions opposing the proposed development. The Friends wanted voters to decide the issue and called for a referendum. “The city declared our legally binding petitions without merit because it had already engaged in a contract with the developers. We decided to challenge that decision in court,” said Rich Norenberg, a Friends member. The developers have formed a group called Lakeside Forward to promote the project. Lakeside Forward is now suing Friends of Lakeside Park for monetary damages if the project doesn’t go forward.

Very often, residents are promised tax breaks for doing the bidding of business. But homeowners in the Town of Mosel, where Kohler Company’s Whistling Straits golf course is located, saw their property taxes increased by 18% when Kohler declared the course to be less profitable than anticipated.

And then there’s the Foxconn con. In 2017, President Trump, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and ex-Governor Scott Walker held a groundbreaking ceremony in Mount Pleasant to tout the company’s lavish promises of 13,000 high-paying manufacturing jobs coming to Wisconsin. But it was the Mount Pleasant Village Board that coerced local property owners into selling their homes and even threatened the use of eminent domain, which is normally only used for public projects.

The promises of benefits to the state and the local community were lavish. But unfortunately, three years later, they have yet to come true, and the company has admitted they never will.

The new year has dawned with plenty of riveting national controversies that deserve our attention. But across Wisconsin, people concerned about their local environments and their quality of life are hiring lawyers and gearing up for the fight for equal representation by their municipal politicians. Homeowners have rights. Taxpayers have rights. It’s time some of our local leaders figured that out.

People who take action on environmental and quality of life issues in their own backyards are sometimes accused of NIMBY-ism. But what better place to take action than your own backyard?

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