Sometimes, a mistake or unexpected incident can act as a catalyst, resulting in a positive outcome.
A recent example occurred on Feb. 15, when a closed session of the virtual Waunakee Village Board meeting was accidentally recorded on Zoom.
The board had closed the meeting to discuss the Cohen-Esrey Development Group’s workforce housing proposal on West Main Street, in particular, the conceptual development agreement and tax-incremental-financing assistance request. Closed sessions are permitted for bargaining purposes.
Some board members expressed safety concerns for children who would live there, where the speed limit on Highway 19 is 35 miles per hour and increases to 55 a short distance away. The discussion even became heated at some points.
Afterwards, a number of accusations surfaced on social media and even in letters to the editor printed in last week’s edition. They ranged from a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law, to a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Some were surprised by board members’ concerns and seemingly interpreted them as a stance toward workforce housing in Waunakee. But those concerns had been raised throughout the process, first by the neighbor of 701 W. Main St. when the board discussed rezoning the site in 2018.
For supporters of the project itself, the board’s discussion, though intended for closed session, proved productive. As was discussed at the March 1 meeting, the developer reached out to board members with strategies addressing their concerns — 4-foot fences between the property and the sidewalk to prevent young children from darting into traffic and a contribution over time to develop a trail into a nearby conservancy, to name just two.
Perhaps the same set of circumstances could have occurred in a more conventional manner had the meeting remained closed. In that scenario, staff might have relayed the board members’ concerns to the Cohen-Esrey developer following the meeting, prompting the same results. We’ll never know. We also don’t know what was discussed once mistake was discovered and the meeting then closed. We do know that clear, open communication is effective.
Some readers reached out to me after the meeting. One asked if I supported this project. I have written prior columns in this newspaper in support of workforce housing. It accommodates professionals earning wages outpaced by Dane County’s housing market. And, projects such as these not only allow people to live closer to their work and Dane County companies to more easily attract employees, they benefit the environment and our infrastructure as fewer people commute from outlying counties.
But more importantly, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority has also shown its support, providing more than $6 million in tax credits for the project.
Cohen-Esrey has been developing workforce housing since 1969, so its reputation is solid. Sure, the location is challenging, but with ingenuity, those challenges can be met.