A straw-poll vote taken by Waunakee Village Board members during their Feb. 15 meeting showed a majority were opposed to the West Main Street affordable housing proposal.
The vote came after a discussion during a closed session portion of the Zoom meeting that, due to a technical error, became recorded on Zoom for the public to see.
The Feb. 15 board meeting agenda included two items related to the 50-unit Cohen-Esrey apartment project, which has received a Low Income Housing Tax Credit from the Wisconsin Economic and Housing Development Authority.
Slated for open session, the first item was on a policy for using Tax Incremental Finance (TIF) extension funds for Waunakee’s Housing Betterment program. The board has approved, in concept, extending TIF projects due to close early, with the final year of tax increment going toward an affordable housing fund, as state statutes permit.
The Cohen-Esrey project, proposed just west of McDonald’s at 701-705 W. Main St., prompted village trustees and members of the Community Development Authority to close TID #2 one year early and file the extension with the Department of Revenue. With a request for TIF funds for the Cohen-Esrey project, some board members had requested a policy be in place prior to deciding on the developer’s request.
Slated for closed session, the next agenda item was on the conceptual development agreement and TIF request for the Cohen-Esrey project. In that session, board members aired concerns about the location, particularly its proximity to a busy state highway where children from the apartments would be tempted to cross en route to Ripp Park. Bill Ranum noted that the development would likely house a high number of children.
Trustees Phil Willems and Gary Herzberg both said they didn’t like the building design, as well.
“It’s too big for the site,” Willems said, adding the building is too close to the road. Willems said he would support a smaller project there.
Trustee Erin Moran said she supported the project, calling it beautiful, and noted that pedestrians could use the signalized crossing at Holiday Drive.
Trustee Kristin Runge, who prior to the closed session noted that the WHEDA funding is a unique opportunity, said the project would be “great in another part of town.”
“Will it happen in another part of town? I don’t know. It’s a big risk to take,” Runge said.
Runge and Trustee Nila Frye noted that workforce housing is needed. Both served on a Housing Task Force to identify the need and opportunities for such housing in Waunakee.
Runge told fellow board members that she wished their concerns had been clearer at previous plan commission meetings, adding that the project was first presented in 2019. The WHEDA funding was approved last summer.
The board has approved a conditional use permit for Cohen-Esrey’s multifamily project in an area zoned for commercial use, along with a certified survey map.
Attorney Bryan Kleinmaier reminded board members that the site plan has not yet been approved, just submitted to the plan commission, and as part of the agreement, board members could request changes to the building and site designs.
“The only thing that has held up the site plan is if the village is going to provide assistance,” Kleinmaier told the Tribune Wednesday when contacted by phone.
WHEDA funding clock ticking
The project must meet a deadline to receive the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Brian Sweeney, Cohen-Esrey’s development director, told the Tribune construction will need to begin by July 1 to be eligible.
“If we can do that in April, we’d rather do that,” Sweeney said about the groundbreaking. “We’re all teed up to close on the financing for the project.”
He said the preference is to receive the board’s approval for the project in March.
Sweeney has requested $330,000 of the TID #2 extension, he said; TID #2’s increment is estimated at $450,000 depending on the valuation for 2021.
Initially, Cohen-Esrey had requested a higher amount.
“We heard the discussion over the last few weeks as far as where an affordable housing fund is going. And we heard very strongly from board members and CDA members, as well, that using 100 percent of any fund just isn’t probably going to go anywhere from a policy perspective,” Sweeney said.
From Cohen-Esrey’s latest request, village staff presented a resolution to the board on the TIF assistance. Cohen-Esrey’s preference would be to have the village board’s decision in March, but the first April board meeting would be acceptable, according to Sweeney.
“That’s up to the edge,” he said about the latter timeline.
Sweeney said his team worked with village planning consultant Ed Freer on the building’s design.
“I think we’ve crafted a very attractive building that Waunakee residents will be proud of and will be a beautiful gateway into the village,” he said.
Sweeney prefers to refer to developments like this proposal as workforce housing, he said, noting it is targeted to working families; 10 of the 50 units will be leased at market rate.
“These are teachers, young nurses. This is targeted to a professional young market,” Sweeney noted.
Asked if Cohen-Esrey’s developments tend to have large numbers of children, Sweeney said of the 5,000 units the company manages, many one- and two-bedrooms apartments are leased by individuals, not couples. He estimated of all the people housed in the developments, 25 to 30 percent are children.
Some comments on social media centered around the closed session discussion. Those closed sessions are reserved for personnel and bargaining discussions. The Tribune contacted the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s Legal Hotline and learned that the state’s open meeting laws do not limit elected officials’ discussion in those meetings.
Kleinmaier, attorney for the village, said he did offer opinion on what should not be discussed at the meeting. He noted that the terms of a development agreement relate to cost and funding, and the negotiations can often save taxpayer dollars.
For instance, if the board desired a design change in the design for public safety, a discussion in closed session can prevent the developer from learning which party is expected to pay for it or whether cost-sharing is possible.
Kleinmaier noted that stormwater controls were an issue with the Hovde development on Main Street. While it was not a monetary issue, it did come with a cost.
The board took no action after closed session. The conceptual development agreement and TIF assistance request for the project will likely be on the March 1 village board agenda.