Wausau City Hall

Damakant Jayshi

A proposal for a six-unit affordable housing project on city-owned property on Wausau’s west side collapsed after failing to get a required two-third majority for rezoning by the City Council on Tuesday.

The proposal to build the affordable apartments on three lots in the 200 block of Wyatt Street failed by a single vote.

The proposal needed a two-thirds majority because residents from the neighborhood had signed a petition against the rezoning. Although the vote was 7-4 in favor of the proposal, it failed because eight votes were need to pass it.

Community Development recommended the project, which included three one-bedroom, two two-bedroom and a single three-bedroom apartment to be build on the three parcels of land. The Wausau Plan Commission also endorsed the project and said the rezoning, from single family residential to multi-family residential, was appropriate.

But even before the City Council made it decision, the housing project had suffered a setback after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development withheld funds amid objections from residents in the neighborhood the agency said it found “valid.” A letter that HUD wrote to a resident on Aug. 28, a copy of which is in possession of this newspaper, says the city would need to complete HUD requirements for floodplain management on the properties, which includes an eight-step process.

“Due to these deficiencies, HUD will not approve the city’s August 23, 2023 Request for Release of Funds,” HUD wrote, saying it had notified the city of the objections and requested that they “address the issue in accordance with all applicable Regulatory requirements.”

In addition, HUD asked the city to apply for a Letter of Map Revision with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. 

An individual who owns, rents or leases property may submit certain mapping and survey information to FEMA and request that FEMA issue a document that officially removes a property or structure from a special flood hazard area.

Wausau’s Community Development Manager Tammy Stratz said HUD had forwarded the resident’s letter. “I took those concerns and responded to them via e-mail to address those issues,” she told Wausau Pilot & Review, answering questions on behalf of the department and the planning/zoning staff. 

She also said staff addressed residents’ concerns at the Plan Commission and referred to the council meeting packet for details. She also added that “staff will be meeting internally” to determine next steps.

Shirley Jehn, who had written to HUD and got a response, told Wausau Pilot & Review that the objections that she raised in her letter to HUD were “completely based on rezoning, safety of our residents/children in our neighborhood due to increased traffic/street parking, and flood plain and lot contamination issues on the proposed site.” She added HUD reviewed her research on flood plain and the lot contamination.

Vigorous debate about affordability, impact

The council decision and the debate that preceded the vote prompted questions about the reliability and adherence to the city’s zoning codes that are used by residents when deciding where to buy properties. The debate also centered on precisely what affordable housing means, whether affordable units devalue properties in neighborhoods where they are built, and the role of the Plan Commission and whether it was being rendered ineffectual and moot by the City Council.

Before the vote, there were passionate pleas to support the project by city staff, affordable housing advocates and some alders. But there was also strong and united opposition from neighborhood residents and alders who have historically opposed rezoning in single-family residential areas. The residents who weighed in raised their concerns about the impact on the value of their property, as well as increased traffic and noise. They also pointed to concerns regarding the area being a floodplain with potentially contaminated soil.

Tom Kilian, Gary Gisselman and Lou Larson – were among those who rejected the affordable housing project, along with Dawn Herbst. Alder Lisa Rasmussen called the alders who talk about supporting affordable housing but rejected the opportunity to realize one “hypocrites.”

Gisselman defended his stance, saying the matter before them was about rezoning, not affordable housing. He added he was opposed to any zoning change in residential areas. He also said he opposes any intrusion of development projects in single-family home neighborhoods. However, the city’s community development staff, and representatives of United Way of Marathon County – which coordinates affordable housing initiatives – as well as the project partner said the development is indeed about affordable housing and is desperately needed in the city.

Larson and Herbst have almost always opposed any multi-family constriction in neighborhoods that currently have exclusive single-family homes. Kilian said he was always supportive of citizens participating in government decisions that impact them.

Alders Sarah Watson and Michael Martens, who said they toured the neighborhood before the meeting on Tuesday, said they felt the six-unit apartment would fit well in the neighborhood. Martens added that the neighborhood is a mix of single-family homes and has a range of income levels. He again warned of a chilling effect on development in the city if the Plan Commission’s recommendations on rezoning were repeatedly rejected.

Watson added that the project adhered to the density requirement of the neighborhood, at just six units. Even though the city lacked hundreds of affordable units, at least six families will get a home, she said.

Alder Doug Diny said the project fit with the city’s strategic plan and said he trusted the Wausau Plan Commission to have conducted the appropriate research on rezoning.

Rasmussen said the site has been under-utilized for a very long time and it was the council that directed community development staff to come up with a plan. She reminded her colleagues that the proposal involved a six-unit project, not 16. “I think there’s a misunderstanding of what affordable means sometimes,” Rasmussen said. “I think people sometimes assume that people who move in and live in those units aren’t people you want to be around.”

Explaining the meaning of affordability, she said many in the community would qualify for affordable housing based on their income.

“Without my spouse, I qualify,” she added. “It is disingenuous and hypocritical for us to deny a project like this and not let a project like this take flight when we pontificate continuously, all of us, everyone of us.”

She further said that when the housing task force came to them and asked the council to take action they adopted that plan.

“And then here we sit fighting about whether or not six people moving into a neighborhood is the demise of that neighborhood,” she said.

She also asked whether building such affordable units recommended by the housing task force will always face opposition from residents and alders, and rejected the idea that apartments in single-family home neighborhoods are a negative thing.

Later, Alder Carol Lukens made a similar point about affordable housing and the need for affordable units for employees.

Soon after Rasmussen’s comments, City Attorney Anne Jacobson reminded the council that, by ordinance, the council is required to consider the Plan Commission’s recommendation. Although the City Council’s decision is final, Jacobson said, they must consider the factors that the commission took into account and the memos from the community development manager and the planners that are part of the Plan Commission report that “they walk you objectively through the code as to the considerations that they had to look at.”

She added the council does not always have to agree with the Plan Commission but asked the elected body to seriously review the recommendation and somehow document that the review was done.

“If you choose not to follow it, it would be beneficial for the record to have a reason why you are not supporting it,” Jacobson said.

Alder Larson said he was in favor of affordable housing and the city needs it. “What I am opposed to it is where it’s going,” said the Dist. 10 alder who represents the neighborhood. He added that his constituents have already explained why they oppose the project and “70 people have signed a petition against this which speaks volumes.” He also raised the issue of “spot zoning” and asked what kind of precedents they are setting by rezoning in a single-family home area.

Spot zoning, according to Cornell Law School, “refers to when a piece of property or groups of property have special zoning laws applied to them that differ from the zoning laws surrounding them. The practice of spot zoning can be very controversial and may be illegal.”

When Rasmussen asked Chief Inspector/Zoning Administrator William Hebert to explain spot zoning and whether the rezoning is compatible in the neighborhood, he said it is a low density neighborhood and one of the lowest densities for apartments and “multi-family” zoning districts. City Planner Brad Lenz said according to the city’s comprehensive plan, both multi-family and single-family are considered urban residential.

“By that sense, even if it is two, three, four units, it’s compatible and it goes along with single-family residential.” Lenz also said their rezoning request follows the zoning codes and their recommendation to the council is to approve it. In their memo to Plan Commission on Aug. 8, Lenz and Assistant City Planner Andrew Lynch wrote that “the land use is residential and overall consistent with the neighborhood that is a mix of owner occupied, whole house rentals, and non-conforming duplexes.” They wrote the city’s codes have been followed in this case.

City staff makes earnest plea to approve project

Community Development Manager Stratz made an earnest request to the City Council to approve the zoning amendment for the project, saying they had been working on the project for about a year and looked at “all the aspects.” Alluding to the opposition to rental units, she pointedly asked how many people had been tenants before and added she had been a tenant herself and was in a low-income bracket in the past. She said the City Council gave them a problem to address and this is the solution.

The project did have some shortcomings, according to the city’s staff.

In her memo to the council on Sept. 5, Stratz wrote that she would like to address the concerns raised by the residents. On the subject of contamination, she said the city has worked with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to get the parcels ready for the project and “where they could safely consider it closed out.” She provided a link to the DNR which appears to corroborate the claim but also notes that “continuing obligations apply.”

She added that the city must fulfill additional DNR requirement actions if certain parts of soil on the parcel are disturbed. She made a similar comment in her letter to Shirley Jehn on Aug. 22.

“We are required to remove and properly dispose of any existing contaminated soil and bring in fresh clean soil to replace it during any excavation activities for the project. All of this will happen according to DNR rules and regulations and with their review and approval.”

Stratz denied that the city was deceiving HUD or the residents. In her memo, she wrote that this would be an apartment complex providing safe, clean, affordable housing for income-qualified individuals who are typically working, or possibly elderly people on a fixed income, and will help improve their lives. North Central Community Action Program, the project partner and manager, would be vetting all the tenants and that no registered sex-offender would be allowed. The city will also address traffic-related concerns, she wrote, saying they had incorporated a one-way into the parking lot off of Cleveland Avenue and then exiting onto Wyatt St.

Residents vehemently oppose rezoning

During the public comments phase of the council meeting, many residents from the neighborhood opposed the zoning change and the apartment project – something they had done at the Plan Commission’s public hearing on the project on Aug. 15.

Bob Jehn asked the council to uphold the integrity of its own city’s zoning laws.

Shirley Jehn, who had written to HUD and read parts of the U.S. agency’s reply, alleged the proposed zoning change was not in compliance of the city’s zoning codes, an assertion that was later rejected by the city’s planning staff as well in their memo of Aug. 8. Jehn added that a zoning change does not preserve, protect and promote property values, or the safety and well-being of the residents. She said traffic and parking on a narrow street where people and children walk by will create fear and emotional distress.

“Spot rezoning have been denied in the past and allowing it will open up every residential zone in the city to possible unwanted projects,” she said. “Should all areas of Wausau that each of you represent fear a zoning change in their neighborhood? Please build apartments in the proper zoning area.”

Others said they relied on the zoning codes before buying their properties and the now that zoning cannot be changed. One speaker who said he did not reside in the neighborhood, said he opposed it because of the “dangerous precedent” it would set.

However, Ben Lee of United Way of Marathon County spoke in favor of the project, saying 42% of Wausau residents live paycheck to paycheck. He also praised the NCCAP, the project partner, as excellent stewards of such projects.