Editor’s note: As of the April 3 election, Gibraltar town supervisor Brian Hackbarth was replaced by Bill Johnson, a newcomer to the town board. Barb McKesson retained her position on the board.
The parking lot project behind the Gibraltar Town Center is on hold as the town waits for a permit from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and a conditional use permit from the county. Residents and town board members expressed frustration about the town’s failure to receive the proper permits for the project before work began.
“Nothing is moving forward on this,” said town board member Steve Sohns. “We need to do the right thing in the right order.”
The step that was taken out of order was grading and stump removal at the site before acquiring the necessary permit from the DNR. While the town was allowed to clear cut the property without DNR approval, “the line between the tree cutting and the grading is the line that was crossed,” said Peter Hurth of Baudhuin Surveying and Engineering, who created the plan for the parking lot and stormwater pond. “That should not have happened, removing stumps. That should have waited until the DNR permit was in hand.”
The missing piece of the DNR permit is a concurrence of the wetland delineation that a surveying firm drew for the town in the fall. Hurth said he has never seen the DNR alter a project by shifting the wetland line, so he expects the permit will be granted.
“We approved the plan with the understanding the permits would be applied for,” said Town Board chair Dick Skare.
But residents expressed frustration that action was taken without the permit in hand, claiming the proper steps would have allowed for more public input. They said Hurth should have known to get the proper permits before work began.
“You just said that I’m going to do a major project and I didn’t know I needed permits,” Peter Van Sistine said to Hurth. Van Sistine owns a condominium adjacent to the proposed stormwater pond in the parking lot project.
Two town board members, Sohns and Brian Hackbarth, also alleged Skare circumvented the board by pursuing a conditional use permit needed for the project without board approval.
“That can’t be done without action by the town board,” said Hackbarth.
Skare said his conversations with Rick Brauer at the Door County Planning Department were just to ensure the permit was complete before it was approved by the board and submitted. Brauer and the planning department have no authority for approval of conditional use permits, which must be approved by the county’s Resource Planning Committee.
Skare did sign the unapproved permit, which Sohns said he should not have done.
“How can you go ahead and sign something before we’ve had a discussion about it?” Sohns asked.
Although Skare signed the permit, the permit is not actionable until approved by the town and county board. It is unclear whether Skare’s actions violated his authority, but the Gibraltar Town Board has a practice of approving the application for a conditional use permit before even approaching the county, according to Hackbarth.
Brauer said that while the town is allowed to cut trees on the property in preparation for the project, he would not have recommended doing so before approval of all of the permits, including the conditional use permit.
While Sohns and Hackbarth derided the failed permitting process, they did approve the site plan for the project along with the rest of the town board on Dec. 6.
They both said approval of the site plan was not an approval of the project.
“Just because you have a conceptual site plan doesn’t mean it’s a done deal,” Hackbarth said in an interview after the meeting. “There’s a lot of preliminary plans we have sitting on the shelf.”
Skare and town board members Barb McKesson and Dwayne Daubner, all interpreted the approval of the site plan as a green light to proceed with the project.
Should the town continue pursuing the conditional use permit for the expansion of the parking lot, it will be hard for neighbors to stop it.
A new state law passed in 2017 prohibits denial of a conditional use permit based solely on testimony from neighbors. As long as the town can prove they can meet the conditions of the permit such as lighting and noise, the permit cannot be denied.
All work at the site has stopped until the DNR can issue a concurrence, which won’t be until the fresh April snow melts and vegetation is growing.
Brauer is expected to return the conditional use permit to the town this week, which will trigger a 28-day waiting period for public comment and board approval before going to the Resource Planning Commission. In light of the public scrutiny about the project, the town may push that timeline further back.