At the Town of Lodi’s regular board meeting on Tuesday, Board Supervisor Marc Hamilton moved to have Town Chairman James Brooks removed from the town plan commission following a contentious Plan Commission meeting discussing potential property rezoning.
The motion died with no support among any of the other members of the Town Board, as discussions continue in the case of proposed rezoning for local business owner James Hellenbrand.
Hamilton, who also sits on the Plan Commission, requested Brooks be removed from his position on the Plan Commission citing a letter that Brooks wrote to Columbia County Department of Planning and Zoning in the days leading up to the Plan Commission’s June 28 meeting. The letter outlined that per the town’s comprehensive plan, input from citizens, and input from the town’s attorney Hellenbrand’s request for rezoning of his property from agricultural to commercial, would be inappropriate as-is and the county should postpone any decisions on the matter until it could be discussed at the town level.
“This letter was sent from Town of Lodi stationary, addressed from the Town of Lodi, and signed by James Brooks, Town Chair,” said Hamilton. “It did not come from James Brooks citizen.”
A contentious zoning request
In addition to his disagreement with the issuance of the letter, Hamilton disagreed with the the letter’s inclusion in the information packet provided to commission.
“I have been on the board for two and a half years and I have never seen such a blatantly negative presentation in our packet about any kind of zoning,” said Hamilton. “The Town Chair should have no authority to determine what goes into the commission packets…I believe the pressure from the Town Chair to add these negative narratives to the committee packet was an act of malfeasance in itself.”
The Town Board meeting on Tuesday, with mostly filled seating, was a comparatively subdued affair compared to the June 28 Plan Commission meeting, in which a partition was opened to allow visitors to stand in an attached kitchen and standing room was filled to the point of one resident standing against the wall directly behind where Brooks was sitting.
The meeting addressed a request from Hellenbrand to have his property on Ryan Road rezoned from agriculture to commercial property, legitimizing his businesses JD Hellenbrand pier servicing and boat storage, and All-Size Blacktop Sealing, which have been operating there since as far back as 2003.
Throughout that time the property has not been zoned for commercial activity, which was recognized by Hellenbrand’s attorney Paul Johnson: “This business has been operating since 2003 in plain sight, doing exactly what it has been doing with incredibly little complaints during the last 20 years. I’m not sure why this has been like this, but Dan Hellenbrand and Jim Hellenbrand are here to make this right.”
Attendees included supporters of the Hellenbrands, but also opponents to the change who described the Hellenbrands as scoff laws, avoiding the often drawn out and tedious zoning process that had been on display with previous appearances from residents appealing to make home renovations or install new driveways to their properties.
Among the concerns raised was a history of illegal trash burns on the property and what that and expanded commercial activity would mean for local water quality flowing to the nearby Spring Creek, which feeds the Wisconsin River.
On that point, Hamilton interjected, insisting runoff was not an issue, which he could verify, his own company, Strander’s Sanitary, regularly providing sewage services to the property.
Plan Commission Chair Krause told attendees that the commission had discussion with the Hellenbrands and county officials several months earlier to determine what would be necessary to bring the property into compliance.
“The county said we had to start somewhere, and from the county’s perspective, the place they wanted to start was not with the rezoning, but with the comprehensive plan amendment,” said Krause. “And so it was their idea to start there.”
Disagreement, but no dismissal
On Tuesday, Hamilton moved to have Brooks removed from the Plan Commission, which was followed by several seconds of silence. Brooks offered a second to the motion to allow for discussion.
Brooks responded to Hamilton’s comments that it was within his authority as Town Chair, and under what he considered his oath of office, to be in communication with county authorities in such a manner.
“This town board and the citizens here would like us to enforce our ordinances,” said Brooks. “This town board wants us to enforce driveways, the mess of a residence on Highway 113 over here, and we’re still having the issue with the cats.”
As a side note, Brooks mentioned that he had been chewed out over the weekend when speaking to someone about a driveway issue and expected similar experiences with a new driveway ordinance.
“I don’t get to pick and choose what we enforce, that’s not my responsibility as a Town Board Chair, I enforce our ordinances and that’s the way it goes,” said Brooks, going on to say, “I have a right to send a letter off,” and telling board members they had the same option.
Resident Gene Fleming asked town attorney William Morgan if it was illegal to send such a letter without getting prior approval from the board. Morgan explained that it was not illegal, “Whether another chair would handle it differently, that’s fair.”
A similar sentiment was shared by Supervisor Tom Marx and Supervisor Karla Faust. Marx described his concerns not being of an ethical issue, but worry of potentially offending citizens and community stakeholders. Faust described it as a communications issue.
“I think that it is something that could be resolved by a little more communication,” said Faust. “I’m not in the camp of removing people from boards. I think that we are all very busy people and we try our best and if there are hiccups along the way, we take a step back and reorganize and refocus and move forward.”
Hellenbrand came up again on the agenda as having offered an in-kind donation to the Town of Lodi, offering to mow an area of “noxious weeds” around the Town Hall free of charge.
Marx and Brooks commented that Hellenbrand had mowed for the town previous summers, but Fleming warned them from the offer.
“I’ve been in this position, I’ve done work at the the old Town Hall as an electrician, and I could not volunteer my time,” said Fleming. “So the Township paid me the usual and customary fee to do electrical work. Being that there is business in front of multiple town boards with Hellenbrands, it should be sent out for bids with the factor being that he is excluded because he has business in front of the boards.”
It was then pointed out that Hellenbrand had similarly donated the resealing of the Town Hall parking lot in September.
Morgan pointed out that it is legal to make any donation to a municipality similar to any other nonprofit. Though Hamilton explained that it the situation had changed from September.
“Now he has something in front of the board. It’s different,” said Hamilton. “The dynamics have changed. I hate to turn down free stuff, but...”
To settle the issue another resident in the meeting offered to do the mowing.