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Proposed High Cliff development draws passionate concerns at public hearing

By: 
Tom Collins

Appropriately on the night before France celebrated Bastille Day, Sherwood offered a take on the classic Charles Dickens novel of those revolutionary times, “A Tale of Two Cities.”

With apologies to Dickens, the long July 13 edition of the Sherwood Village Board might easily have been called “A Tale of Two Golf Courses.”

Change is likely to come to each of the village’s existing courses with one, the smaller Sherwood Forest course, under consideration for residential development. That portion is in a separate story.

The primary focus was on choices for the High Cliff Golf Course and included a nearly two hour public hearing. Attention was on proposed changes that could mean 22 high-end, duplex-style dwellings cutting along a swath of the current golf course land.

Unlike the French Revolution, no heads will roll, but Bastille Day-style passions from supporters and opponents of the project created an air of intense passion worthy of French and American revolutionary heritages.

At least 20 people appeared live while another 10 offered comments under the virtual meeting provisions. Still others wrote letters with approximately one dozen favoring the project and about half that many letters opposing it.

In addition, a rare protest petition was signed and submitted by 20 of 27 property owners within 1,000 feet of the golf course. The petitioners quested the project.

Under village code, the protest petition calls for a so-called “super majority” of the seven village board members to approve key elements of the proposed Cottages at High Cliff project.

After nearly two hours of hearing from residents in person or through virtual means, the petition stood as a key element in the effort to move the project from vision into reality. The project’s use of a planned   urban development (PUD) seems to continue to be a hurdle many residents, planning body members and village board members alike are struggling to accept.

The rarely used protest petition and the 3-2 vote on the PUD by the village board July 13 now mean the concept returns to the planning body for one more round of consideration, then comes back to the full village board. That process will produce the fate of the current proposal for the 22-buildings and their 44 dwelling units plus a private road on the High Cliff Golf Course property.

At their May 18 meeting, the Sherwood Plan Commission voted 4-3 in disapproving the PUD concept.

The village’s legal counsel found an ordinance still in the village code calling for returning such projects to the planning body for review if the village board does not reach the “super majority” voting results. The planning body may hold a special meeting or wait for their regular August meeting for their reconsideration.

Village Administrator Randy Friday said he had not seen the super majority vote technicality in previous stints as administrator in Sherwood nor in his former work as administrator in other Wisconsin or Vermont communities.

The village codes usually parallel changes in state laws but the state legislature apparently jettisoned the super majority provision without a great deal of fanfare. Friday said it took the village attorney several hours of careful scrutiny to find the village code triggered by the petition.

While village board members discussed bringing the local code in line with the state statutes, which is their normal procedure and that of most regional communities, it may not be in time to coincide with the proposed golf course project reconsideration since it needs formal publication over a designated period of time and also requires a public hearing prior to voting on such changes.

The village board did follow a similar path as the planning body in approving at least two other requested changes for the multi-pronged High Cliff development proposal. Those included officially rezoning High Cliff Golf Course from IR-1 to IR-2. That allows construction of residences on a recreational property.

Some village board members found it curious that zoning was not changed when the original condominiums on the course were constructed in the 1980s.

The second portion of the High Cliff project approved by the board was amending the village’s comprehensive plan to coincide with the golf course’s project plans.

Still under consideration are any further repercussions from the resident protest petition to the village. And in totally separate hands in the legal system is a lawsuit between nearby homeowners and the golf course. A ruling on the lawsuit may come in early August.

The July 13 session marked the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 Safer at Home orders that the Sherwood Village Board meeting room was used for a formal meeting. Part of that decision was pressure from some residents to be able to express their views in person rather than using virtual methods.

In this case, it was a modified open meeting with four of the seven board members available in person and with Benz attending virtually. There were some sound problems during the session but the public hearing views were heard live and virtually.

People who wanted to be heard live were called in one at a time and allowed three minutes to express their views. In a few cases, people read well-crafted letters from others during their allowed time slot. Among the approximately 20 in-person comments, slightly more were in favor of the golf course project. The virtual comments that followed were evenly split for and against the project.

In addition to those comments, the board received more than a dozen additional letters or emails published in their packets which grew to a whopping 208 pages for the meeting.

Those in favor of the project noted the business growth possibilities for the village or benefits to the tax base. Some of the supporters proclaimed themselves avid golfers who supported the plans and also wanted to see housing units for those ages 55 and older in the community.

Some in opposition to the plan also claimed to be avid golfers but suggested problems reducing the overall course yardage and making changes to the current course configuration. One person called the proposed changes irreversible.

Interestingly, at least one proponent and one opponent noted previous work experience for golf courses elsewhere. But the two men had opposite opinions. One said the project was needed to help High Cliff survive as a golf course while the other person contended it was a healthy course that would survive without the planned senior living addition.  

Village resident and frequent board and commission member John Sharer identified some of the concerns from what he called the “Nimby factor,” or “not in my back yard.” While he supported the High Cliff project, he said he likely would be among those opposing it if he lived closer to it.

Many residents are physically close to the project are concerned about distance from the planned 22 buildings, which could be described as high-quality duplex structures. The plan calls for them to snake along both sides of a proposed private drive near homes on Palisades Drive and to the southwest through golf course land.

Golf course professional Corey Feller summarized the proposal as a “Florida-style” atmosphere where people can use golf carts to travel to golf, eat or just take a ride.

The resident petition, signed by one or more owners of 20 of the 27 properties within 1,000 feet of the course, also expressed concerns about medium density housing, or more dwellings on smaller parcels of land with the project.

And their petition suggested what they called a lack of transparency, suggesting the golf course ownership needs the project because of financial difficulties.

 

Kathy Salo asked if the project, which has had more and fewer building and units in a number of iterations, could move forward without the 22 buildings and 44 units now in the concept. Developer Mike Krueger and owner Dan Rippl both pointed to elements like the utility infrastructure costs that drive the need to recuperate expenses from that number of buildings and units.

The density concern was countered with a submission showing a similar project in Kimberly with a 24-ft. distance between dwellings.

One of the objections to the current concept is gating the Palisades end of what will be a private road. That gating procedure has some safety concerns, including emergency and village utility access. Project developer Mark Krueger, who has done some Sherwood and other area developments, said there would be provisions for both concerns.

Nearby residents are also concerned about safety in the developed area with more traffic likely with the number of people potentially living in 44 housing units, among other worries. One opponent said she wanted the natural aspects preserved like High Cliff State Park for both people and wild life.

But Sherwood native Angela Halbach, who said she had experience working on development projects in both the Chicago area and elsewhere in Wisconsin, said she thought the development would help her home community grow and progress while also keeping its recreational and natural advantages.

While some, including at least two people who either say they are long-term golfers or who have worked for golf courses say the High Cliff Golf Course will prosper without the residences, the current golf course ownership team claims the development is needed as part of their overall business plan for the present and future to maintain the viability of the course.

They contend rainy weather has cut into their available business days, and along with the COVID-19 pandemic, has created struggles. Some critics say they also are burdened by additional debt incurred through purchasing and rehabilitating the former High Cliff Restaurant.

An interesting perspective came from veteran village board member Joe Hennlich. He was opposed to changing the High Cliff zoning along with the village’s comprehensive plan.

“I think we all want to keep the golf course and the only way we can do that is to not change the zoning,” he wrote. “Rezoning will open a Pandora’s box. The golf course owners will be back within 10 years in an effort to develop more land.”

He suggested that scenario would put much more stress on future village boards.

During his comments, Rippl suggested the overall course layout has gone through at least four changes in its time. That has included residential development along Spring Hill Drive. He also suggested purchasing the former restaurant was vital to the current overall makeup and plans for High Cliff as it is today.

Rippl defended the residential project as part of a needed business plan for the course and the restaurant/catering business.

Those favoring the project supported the plan and pointed to it helping to maintain what they called a gem in the village and an important employer in the community. Some proponents also supported the idea of being able to make a transition from their Sherwood homes to a desirable location for people over age 55.

But critics suggest the residential dwellings will change the golf course irrevocably and that the course will not be as attractive or popular with golfers.

Paul Grube asked if some portions of the project could be delayed until the ownership saw interest in the project units. But ownership suggested the costs would increase if such elements as utility construction were staggered. Like Salo, Grube also noted concept variations in the number of units since 2019.

During the discussion of distances among units and between the project and existing homes, Tom Herman, who lives closest to the course project, said he’d offered to purchase some of the nearby land in order to maintain distance from potential dwellings. One concern he had was headlights shining into his home.

He expressed irritation at not being offered what he viewed as suitable options.

Feller said some of the project land is eyed for activity areas to provide amenities such as pickle ball and horse shoes for the potential residents.

While several steps are needed for the project to move forward, one thing is clear. There are strong passions and firm beliefs for those in favor and those opposed to the project.

Some past Sherwood public hearings have been passionate displays of interest. They have included meetings about a cell tower near Miller Pond and an older example of a pair of businesses seeking to build day care facilities in the village. But those public hearings often became raw and raucous.

In stark contrast, passions and comments at the July 13 public hearing were both measured and controlled. Village President Joyce Laux kept the session well-ordered and followed the three-minute time limit for everyone, even when some speakers balked.

While lengthy, it was a model for a public hearing, especially under the ongoing COVID-19 conditions.

The rarely-applied protest petition and the resulting requirement to return consideration to the Sherwood Plan Commission, then return to the village board for the super majority vote will be carefully monitored and may slow the project’s pace. But governmental and judicial decisions have a pace of their own, often outside the sphere of fast-paced businesses or impatient citizens.

Also waiting in the wings is any potential impact on the project from the lawsuit. Both those outcomes will likely add some clarity to the Cottages at High Cliff concept and its eventual direction.

See the separate story for information on a possible future for Sherwood’s other golf course, Sherwood Forest.