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Liberty Grove Explores Zoning Alternatives

Northern Door officials and citizens are once again embroiled in a dispute over how to manage growth and development in Liberty Grove.
Liberty Grove Plan Commission member Mike Kahr and others would like the town to opt out of county zoning and implement their own based on the town’s Smart Growth plan. Kahr said the current policy of using Smart Growth as an unbinding guide isn’t working.
“The Smart Growth concept is good, the implementation is not,” Kahr said. “The county has basically said they’re not going to support it. It’s not utilized as a planning tool. The town put a lot of time and thought into that plan. Now we have a plan, but it doesn’t have any teeth.”
In August, the town formed an ad hoc committee to research alternatives to county zoning. On Dec. 12, the committee declined to make a recommendation to the Plan Commission, instead presenting a list of pros and cons of opting out of county zoning. The idea was discussed at the Jan. 18 board meeting, but the board decided to table the issue for further research and discussion.
Opting out of county zoning would provide a number of benefits to the town in shaping future developments, Kahr said. These include having a zoning administrator present at Plan Commission meetings, the elimination of the need to go before the county for project approvals, and reducing the possibility of lawsuits due to the ambiguity between town smart growth plans and county zoning.
“Having our own zoning would bring continuity,” he said.
Liberty Grove Town Chairman Charlie Most doesn’t think opting out is the way to go.
“It’s almost like they want to micromanage zoning, and that’s not possible,” he said. “A zoning ordinance is a law. Smart Growth is a guide, not the law. Zoning will always pre-empt the Smart Growth plan.”
He also questioned some of the suggested benefits of the town implementing its own zoning.
“I don’t think [their own zoning administrator] is necessary for the plan commission,” he said. “All they have to do is call down to the planning department. A zoning administrator is not going to make you any wiser when you’re reading the ordinance. And a lot of them wouldn’t like the answer they’d get anyway.”
He also said the change would not prevent lawsuits.
“I don’t buy that at all,” Most said. “The way to avoid lawsuits is to be consistent, and I think the town has been consistent. The Resource Planning Commission and county board go along with Liberty Grove probably 97, 98 percent of the time.”
Liberty Grove has been sued several times in recent years over building permit denials based in part on smart growth. Most said one suit alone has cost the town about $81,000.
“That’s not insignificant when you’re talking in terms of a $1.1 million budget,” he said.
Much of the frustration with present zoning policy stems from the proposal by Gene and Cheryl Olson to construct condominiums on their Ellison Bay Hill property alongside Highway 42, the present home of the Olson’s Grandview Motel. Many residents are upset because the project would obstruct the expansive view of passing motorists approaching the hill. Over 100 people turned out for the Oct. 3rd Plan Commission meeting when the project was discussed.
The town eventually decided to approve the project with limitations placed on the height of the building closest to the road, with Most commenting that “we cannot own every Town view.”
“Smart Growth says we should protect our rural character and scenic vistas,” Kahr said. “Now if you can identify one better scenic vista than that hill, I’m all ears.”
Kahr cited Ephraim as an example of more principled planning.
“What Ephraim has is design review,” he said. “A lot of people don’t like it, but at least Ephraim has character.”
Ephraim village president Paul Burton said the village benefits from its restrictions.
“I can’t overstate the importance of good zoning in terms of keeping Door County what we want it to be,” he said. “With good zoning, everyone gives up a little in terms of property rights, but everyone’s on the same page; without it, there’s chaos and hard feelings.”
He said Ephraim constantly revises and updates its zoning, and took the additional step of implementing design review to ensure large buildings and developments meet aesthetic standards.
According to Most, for Liberty Grove to develop its own zoning would take the town at least a year and a half, even if you started with the county plan as a base.
“It would be a very contentious process,” he said. “Everybody wants restrictions on their neighbor’s property, but not on theirs, and some people would want to keep their property zoned as it is now. It wouldn’t be easy.”
Kahr said it’s frustrating to have put so much work into the Smart Growth plan, only to have it merely used as an unbinding guide.
“I feel that if it doesn’t adhere to Smart Growth, we should deny it,” he said.
Most said the courts have not validated Smart Growth plans as grounds for zoning decisions and won’t until 2010. He noted that the county plans to incorporate town smart growth plans into its comprehensive plan by 2009, and said the town should make better use of overlays in the meantime.
But with development growing at a rapid pace in Northern Door, altering the look and character of the area, Kahr said he feels a sense of urgency.
“The time to be active is now, not after all the development happens,” Kahr said. “I’m tired of talking about it, let’s fix it. This is a unique area, and there are certain things we should not have to barter with.”
Most said he would arrange for Rob Burke, a land use expert, to meet with the town board, plan commission and citizens in February, and has arranged for a county planner to come to the Feb. 13 plan commission meeting as well.
“Zoning is complex,” he said. “A lot of people would like to think they could comment on any type of permit. I think a lot of my role is to educate people on what zoning is and isn’t.”

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