By Roger Utnehmer
When the Friends of the Sturgeon Bay Public Waterfront challenged a controversial hotel development in court they probably did not anticipate finding themselves caught between the elected city council and appointed Waterfront Redevelopment Authority.
The Sturgeon Bay city council voted in July to accept a compromise that would allow some development on the city’s west-side waterfront while protecting a portion for public use. That compromise settlement agreement had been rejected by the WRA in a meeting the previous week.
Many citizens have questioned how a non-elected authority can overrule the vote of an elected city council.
The answer can be found in Wisconsin State Statutes and a November 6, 1990 vote of the Sturgeon Bay City Council creating the WRA.
Section 66.1333 gives cities the power to create development authorities to eliminate blight and clear slums. Activities development authorities are empowered to conduct include acquisition of blighted areas, demolition of building and construction of improvements.
The statutes also outline how members are to be appointed to development authorities. Sec. 66.1333 (3) (5) says “In making appointments of commissioners, the appointing power shall give due consideration to the general interest of the appointee in development, slum clearance or urban renewal program and shall insofar as possible, designate representatives from the general public, labor, industry, finance or business group, and civic organizations. Appointees shall have sufficient ability and experience in related fields, especially in the fields of finance and management, to assure efficiency in the redevelopment program, its planning, and direction. One of the 7 commissioners shall be a member of the local legislative body. No more than 2 of the commissioners may be offices in the city in which the authority is created.”
Sturgeon Bay’s Waterfront Redevelopment Authority was created in November of 1990 by an unanimous vote.
The first members appointed to the WRA by then-mayor Norbert Schactner were Craig Ostrand, Cathy Wiese, Dan Austad, Gerald Lamer, Cap Wulf and Thomas Herlache.
So, if the city council supports a compromise that will end litigation why can the WRA over-rule that decision? How can an appointed authority have more power than an elected city council?
That answer, according to Sturgeon Bay city attorney Randy Nesbitt, is because only a judge can dismiss a party to the litigation. The Friends group filed an action against both the City of Sturgeon Bay and the WRA. “Once an answer has been filed to a court complaint,”. Nesbitt explained the only way that a party can be dismissed is upon order of the judge.”
Nesbitt also said that the Friends group no longer has the authority to dismiss the WRA from the suit and that the WRA is bound by the judge’s order.
Several WRA members have shared their reasons for opposing a settlement compromise in stories posted at DoorCountyDailyNews.com, including member Cindy Weber who said she is open to settlement and would like another meeting of the authority scheduled “sooner than later.”
WRA Chair Thomas Herlache told DoorCountyDailyNews.com he has no plans to schedule another meeting.
The next step is a public hearing scheduled in Sturgeon Bay on September 6th that will be conducted by the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR will take comments from the public on the location of the ordinary high water mark. That determination outlines the boundary for development on one side and preservation for the public on the other. That ruling will end the opportunity for parties to the lawsuit to reach a compromise.
The compromise agreement reached between the Friends group and the Sturgeon Bay city council would allow development with sufficient space to construct a hotel while preserving a portion of property along the waterfront for public use.