The Village of DeForest Board of Trustees has approved the creation of a tax increment financing (TIF) development plan for the building of the Pinseekers golf entertainment complex between River Road and Interstate-39.
The four-to-three vote came in a special session meeting on July 14, concluding the unresolved work of the previous week’s Village Board Meeting, which adjourned at 11:45 p.m. after hours of presentations and appearances from members of the public.
Village President Jane Cahill Wolfgram attempted to keep stricter control over the meeting with warnings that speakers would be cut off at three minutes as opposed to the more open earlier appearances. The change was unwelcome among many of the attendees, despite Cahill Wolfgram’s explanation that unlike the prior meeting there was no obligation for the board to hold public appearances in a special session.
As the 11 attendees made their appearances, many for their second or third appearance before the board on the subject, arguments from many shifted to questioning the sincerity and factual basis of developer and village staff presentations.
Kristy Bergeron, who moved to Conservancy Place in 2017 cited text of the Conservancy Place website as not reflecting the environment of the community as it was now developing. Brian Goodman told the board, “I feel like the stats have been padded,” before asking the clerk to pull up a visual aid he had provided on monitors. An earlier presentation by Community Development Director Michelle Lawrie included photos showing the distance of the proposed project from nearest neighbors, but Goodman argued that it was misleading, comparing those cell phone photos to different photos with a “human eye” filter.
When Cahill Wolfgram offered development organizer Ryan Ranguette the option to take the last speaking slot, there were boos from the audience. He chose to speak as his name came up, again addressing issues raised by visitors, such as potential noise from a music stage on the rooftop bar. Ranguette explained that there would be a sound-dampening design, and that the bookings would be in the realm of acoustic performers providing ambiance, and not “loud alcohol-fueled music” as one resident said she expected.
There were shouts of “Three minutes!” cutting Ranguette off, as at least one participant had been using the stopwatch function on his phone to ensure accuracy of the board’s timing, and arguing that those supposedly cut off early be given more time.
At the end of the speaker’s list, one man yielded his three minutes to Sara Zook who spoke earlier in the meeting, but was cut at three minutes before she finished. In an exchange with Cahill Wolfgram of whether Zook actually wanted to speak, there was a yell of, “This isn’t America!”
Zook took the three minutes and re-emphasized her concerns that the neighborhood she moved into would be irrevocably changing: “I really encourage you to hear us in a different way and support us...hopefully our words mean more than TIF funding or what your vision is...I’m hoping we can work this out so we can be heard and we’re changing things together.”
Before moving on from public appearances, Trustee Rebecca Witherspoon insisted there was one person left, referring to Abe Degnan. Cahill Wolfgram pointed out that Degnan was not present, to which Witherspoon insisted his written statement be read aloud.
Several hours earlier Degnan mass emailed a complaint calling for an investigation of Cahill Wolfgram, accusing her of misuse of official authority, sending it to DeForest Village Board members and editors of several Adams Publishing Group newspapers throughout the region. In the complaint, he cited his unrenewed appointments on two committees that meet annually and as-needed (often less frequently), and contact between Cahill Wolfgram and the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Builders Association (of which Degnan, president of Degnan Design Remodel, is president) regarding the WBA’s position on TIF-based development and if Degnan spoke for the organization in that regard.
Cahill Wolfgram recognized the statement, but explained that it was not pertinent to the discussion at hand and not on the agenda.
At that point Trustee William Landgraf made a motion to adjourn the meeting “until this issue is resolved. I feel it has relevance to this discussion and the decision tonight.”
In the previous meeting Landgraf proposed a resolution, seconded by Witherspoon, thanking Degnan “for 13 years of continuous service to the Citizens of the Village of DeForest.” Upon Degnan stepping down from the board in 2008, the DeForest Village Board passed, “A Resolution Thanking Abe Degnan for his Dedicated Service to the Village of DeForest.”
The latter resolution at the July 6 meeting failed to pass on a vote of 3-3-1, with Trustee Jim Simpson joining Witherspoon and Landgraf, and Abigail Lowery abstaining.
Landgraf’s motion to adjourn was defeated on a voice vote and the meeting continued.
One more time on TIFs
In another, final presentation on the topic, Lawrie gave an overview of the proposal, explaining that the project was within the realm of appropriate uses uses for TIF zoning, in which local property taxes are deferred through a period of development and establishment of a new business on the premise that the final increase in property value will more than recoup the cost of lost tax revenue.
In 2020 the Wisconsin Department of Revenue recorded 1,341 Tax Increment Districts (TIDs) in the state, including 99 in Dane County.
Many Conservancy Park residents have argued against the Pinseekers project and the residential-commercial project now under construction, airing concerns of lowering property values among single-family homes. Developers working on those projects have countered pursuing those projects would be counter-productive if it lowered property values, given their investment in other residential property in Conservancy Park.
Lawrie also pointed out the size of the Conservancy Park neighborhood, which is comparable to the entire Village of Dane in total area.
Answering the question of why a TIF program would be proposed on a potentially profitable, non-essential project, Lawrie answered: “It’s an amenity for residents and it is a draw for visitors--if that’s something we don’t want to do, there are a lot of plans that need to be revised.”
Following questions of job creation audits and accountability, bird harm mitigation, and traffic safety along Innovation Drive and River Road, Witherspoon asked, “I don’t care who answers it: why should we ignore the residents?”
“”We do our due diligence,” said Lawrie, “and it is up to you to decide if that is enough.”
Throughout the meetings leading to the this vote, trustees were repeatedly accused of not representing residents of Conservancy Park, at times with implications of unclear ulterior motives. Simpson explained that he had lived there, and wished that he still lived there.
If this is it...
“We continue to grow and I think that’s a good thing,” said Simpson, explaining that his vote would be on behalf of DeForest residents in the future, accepting what it has meant for current relationships, and likely his future electability. “I think I am going to be changing friendships and that is something I did not sign up for, but I’m willing to do that for the village...19 years is enough public service. Just know that I’ll continue to work to make this a better project.”
Trustee Colleen Little explained that she was originally skeptical of the DeForest Athletic Complex, with the final question being of whether it would be a benefit to the village, which led her to a “yes” vote on the project, as she would vote yes for the Pinseekers project.
“This has been taxing physically and mentally for the last couple of weeks, so believe me when I tell you that I take this very seriously,” said Little. “It’s not about what I want, it’s about the betterment of the village and it has been given a lot of thought.”
Trustee Taysheedra Allen told the room that she reserved the right to be emotional in her explanation of her vote, saying that her heart ached for the Village of DeForest.
“It aches for our children who are watching us right now and are taking note of our behavior toward one another,” said Allen. “I lose sleep when my family aches and last night I lost more sleep than any time in my 42 years of living.”
No matter what the vote would be, Allen said, because of strained relationships, broken friendships, and personal accusations, “the relational trauma and behavioral trauma that we have displayed to one another as a community--as adults--will echo in this community for days and weeks and months and years to come.
“Whenever we look at a new development, what happened over the past two weeks will resonate in our souls,” said Allen.
Landgraf told the room how he met a man over a year ago, now a friend, who lives in Heritage Gardens who was excited about the project, and then asked him how he would feel if the project would be built in the field between Heritage Gardens and Club 51: “‘Oh, no, no, no,’ and I said, ‘Why not?’ ‘I don’t want to look at it.’”
When Hooper Corporation came to DeForest, Landgraf explained that he was in full support of using a TIF district, and since has generally supported using that tool for development although, as he said, it may have been overused in residential development.
“We have an obligation for their way of life,” Landgraf said of the Conservancy Park residents, “and my way of life.”
Witherspoon said that upon hearing about the Pinseekers project she was, “kind of excited,” and has continued to believe that it is something that would be good for the community.
“But as I have come to learn more about this project and where it is located and how it’s going to be impacting the people who are closest to it,” said Witherspoon, “I just can’t support it...I think it is sad that people feel as unheard as they have. I am very disturbed by some comments that were made throughout this process. I’m very sad that certain people chose to say negative things about people and then refused to apologize about that.”
Pros and Cons
Like others, Trustee Lowery explained that she had not slept well in recent days, but that it was fine because that is part of being on the village board at times.
“I really appreciate, and respect and empathize with some of the heartfelt things I’ve heard from trustees tonight,” said Lowery. “Whether or not I vote the same as you tonight, and the same for residents as well.”
Lowery had promised to not make a decision before the time to vote, she said, leaving her with a long list of pros and cons, and notes of concerns including the claim that board members had not been listening to residents.
“I have to give a lot of respect to the board, and village staff, particularly LuAnn (Leggett, Village Clerk),” Lowery said, pointing out that there was a room full of people, public meetings on Zoom--carried on as a public service from the necessities of the COVID pandemic, and the level of participation, including time, energy and funding. “I’ve been amazed by everyone up front here over the past few weeks, really listening, absorbing information, and responding to emails and phone calls.”
Similarly, Lowery said, she had also been disturbed by recent developments involving a lack of respect, such as unfounded accusations, insinuations, and raised voices, “sometimes even from a trustee here, which is concerning to me.”
“I agree with Trustee Allen, that it really hurt my heart--certain insinuations or accusations being made about our staff, as she said, they act on our direction,” said Lowery. “Someone also said to me and Trustee Allen in particular that ‘you don’t need to be afraid,’and I’ve never been afraid on the village board. I’ve never felt intimidated or pressured from anyone that I should vote a certain way.”
Lowery said that she shared some of the concerns described by residents and that in counting up and weighing her lists, there were more cons than pros, joining Landgraf and Witherspoon in voting “no.”
Nonetheless, the resolution was approved four-to-three with the rest of the board approving.
As trustees and staff pointed out at points in the evening, the approval of the resolution would not result in groundbreaking the next day. The project has since been passed back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for review of a detailed development plan.