Once or twice each year, Mequon turns down a proposed development (usually a small pocket of homes) after a neighborhood expresses its opposition to the development. Democracy in action, you might say.
However, it is worth taking a moment to examine this democracy in action. The pattern is remarkably similar in almost all of these instances.
Usually, a family has held a property for many years. Ultimately, they no longer need it, and want to get their value out of it. In some cases, it is the owner’s retirement. So, the owner puts the property for sale. A proposed buyer wants to develop it.
As a result, the City puts the proposed developer through a rigorous and expensive set of requirements – engineering, wetland delineation, specimen tree identification, yield plans, sewer and water plans and so forth. If the developer meets all of the City’s standards, which have become more exacting over time, staff recommends the development to the Planning Commission which, in turn, usually recommends it to the Common Council.
By the time the proposal gets to the Council, the development fits in the neighborhood. Often, the lots are slightly larger than those owned by the neighbors. The development is better engineered than the surrounding, already-developed lots.
And there it often dies.
Often, and particularly when the development is in an area already substantially developed, someone does not like the development. The new homes will block their view, or will block their (often trespassory) walking paths. Or they just do not want the construction noise. They like having a big field or wooded area next to their home – at someone else’s cost.
The unhappy neighbor riles up his or her neighbors, who then deluge the Council with letters and emails in opposition, often based on their perception that the new development will cause or exacerbate storm water problems. They also will throw in arguments about traffic (even though it is only a few homes), wildlife and rural character. They will ignore the fact that they have enjoyed the benefits of the open space at someone else’s cost.
These unhappy neighbors sign protest petitions (meaning that six, rather than a simply majority, aldermen need to vote in the affirmative). They show up at meetings. They send emails. They call their elected officials.
A few aldermen vote “no” because of neighborhood opposition (without ever asking the rest of the neighborhood what they think). The project dies. Democracy in action.
But, what about the poor property owner? His or her nest egg is stuck in dirt that he or she can not sell. And, the irony is that he or she is penalized for keeping Mequon rural for longer than his or her neighbors did.
Perhaps those of us who try to balance the equities should stop. We should just put the development to a neighborhood referendum.
Then, if the neighborhood votes no, we should ask only one question: did this development fit in the neighborhood? We would look at whether the development met the City’s standards and whether the lots were comparable in size to those in the neighborhood. If it fit in the neighborhood, perhaps the owner should be made whole. The City could buy the property as a neighborhood park or preserve, and specially assess the neighborhood that said no.
The owner would then receive his or her value. The neighbors would get what they wanted (and often had for free for many years). And the right group would pay for it.