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Do no aesthetic harm PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 13 August 2014 15:13

Port should get rid of the height limit on downtown buildings and concentrate on ensuring that developments exhibit gracious design and respect for the city’s visual character

The Port Washington Common Council should follow the Plan Commission’s recommendation and eliminate the 61-foot limit on the height of downtown buildings.

    The limit should go because it is meaningless; the council can grant developers exceptions at will.


    But the more important reason to take the height limit off the books is that doing so will clarify the fact that responsibility for the aesthetic future of the downtown area rests squarely on the shoulders of the elected and appointed officials of the Common Council, Plan Commission and Design Review Board.


    With a specific height limit in place, there is a temptation to give a green light to projects merely because they comply with the height restriction, without giving adequate attention to design shortcomings.


    The infamous poster building for that mistake is the Lighthouse Condominiums on Lake Street. The structure, which qualified for a permit because it complied with the 85-foot height limit then in effect, has been a giant piñata batted around by critics ever since it rose over the lakefront as a massive, towering rectangle.


    Put aesthetics aside, and it can be said that the Lighthouse condos have been a success for Port Washington, providing high-quality homes for a significant population that has added economic and cultural vigor to the downtown.


    The problem is, you can’t put aesthetics aside, which is why the building has joined two other structures as the subjects of one of the most frequently asked questions by visitors: “What were they thinking when they let that be built?” The other two edifices that provoke the question are the wastewater treatment at the entrance to the north beach and the power plant dominating the south side of the waterfront.

    In pre-Lighthouse condo days, whenever building height limits were discussed, a former Port Washington city planner would proclaim that no one can own a view. The statement was naive at best. Views are bought and sold everyday, sometimes even stolen. It is because buyers can own a view that lakeshore properties, even those on bluffs with only visual access to Lake Michigan, fetch such dear prices.

    The condo-townhouse-office development surrounding the west harbor slip, which is 61 feet high at its maximum and is the basis for the current city height limit, gives stunning  lake views to owners at the expense of a public view that was once one of the city’s prettiest maritime vistas, particularly at sunrise—looking out of the harbor from Wisconsin Street to the lighthouse and beyond.


    The standard rationale for that—that the loss of public views is a fair price to pay for beneficial economic development—will always be controversial.


    Because views are considered precious in a city with Port Washington’s natural gifts, building heights are a sensitive issue here, but height limits alone do little to ensure that developments don’t squander those gifts. More important is whether the design and overall size of the buildings are compatible with the community’s visual character.


    These are subjective judgments, of course, but they should also be informed judgments based on the best information available, and city officials have to be prepared to make them. This is not uncharted territory. A number of Lake Michigan towns, most notably on the eastern shore, have found ways to encourage the development of waterfront condos that offer amenities and views that attract buyers yet do not unreasonably block public vistas and, most important, exhibit gracious design.


    Eliminating Port’s building height limit would properly add weight to the onus on officials to, in a variation of the classic physicians’ imperative, approve only buildings that do no aesthetic harm.



 
A tax that pays dividends to Ozaukee residents PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 06 August 2014 19:06

In an improbable stretch for an election issue, the county sales tax that provides fiscal stability and helps keep property taxes low is being attacked

No tax is popular, but the Ozaukee County sales tax is the closest thing you will find to a tax that payers can love.

    The half-cent tax has been around for 22 years and is so innocuous it is hardly noticed, even though it generates more than $6 million a year to offset property taxes.


    The county sales tax has not been a subject of controversy or even of much conversation, and would not be the subject of this editorial except that it has been made into an issue in the Republican primary election for 60th District representative in the state Assembly.


    In campaign literature, candidate Jean Opitz characterizes the sales tax as an unnecessary burden on Ozaukee residents and asserts that her opponent, Rob Brooks, is to blame for it.


    It’s an odd issue for this election in that the Assembly has no role in deciding whether Ozaukee County levies a sales tax. Holding Brooks responsible for the tax is an improbable stretch—he was not a member of the County Board when the tax was enacted or when it was repurposed to provide property tax relief.


    The Opitz campaign literature also distorts the impact of the tax with faulty facts and faulty math. But the concern here is not about campaign tactics; it’s about an attack on a County Board initiative that has contributed significantly to the county’s fiscal stability and to the low property taxes from which Ozaukee taxpayers have benefitted for years.


    The 0.5% county sales tax was enacted in 1991 to help pay for the new justice center and related projects. After that goal was achieved, the County Board voted in 1999 to continue the tax and use the proceeds to reduce the property tax rate. Since then, it has been paying dividends for county taxpayers.

    The sales tax is budgeted to produce $6.8 million in revenue for the county in 2014. The amount is equal to 35% of the property tax levy, according to Ozaukee County Finance Director Andrew Lamb.         

    If there were no sales tax, the county property tax rate would be at least 35% higher. But the sales tax is not just an alternate way of funding a third of the cost of county services. It’s a better way because, unlike the property tax, out-of-county residents who make purchases here also pay it, in effect subsidizing services for Ozaukee County residents.


    Tourist spending in Ozaukee totalled more than $85 million in 2013, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, almost all of which was subject to the county tax. Not counted in the tourism spending statistic are purchases by people from neighboring counties who come to Ozaukee County to shop at, say, Costco, or other stores in the vast Grafton retail development and at other outlets in the I-43 corridor that also generate county sales tax revenue.


    The numbers make the sensible reason Ozaukee County has a sales tax as plain and obvious as can be. They explain why the County Board, including even its most devoutly conservative members, has consistently supported it.


    The appeal of a county sales tax is nearly universal in Wisconsin. Sixty-two of the 72 counties have one, including Washington County, part of which is also in the 60th Assembly District.


    For a number of years, Ozaukee County has had the lowest or second lowest county property tax rate in the state. That would not be true if it did not have a sales tax.

 
A win for the lake as a big loss looms PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 30 July 2014 14:19

Sheboygan County’s purchase of lakeshore land is good news for Lake Michigan and those who love it; that’s not true of the Kohler Co. plan for a golf course on pristine shoreland

The expected purchase this Friday of 333 acres of Lake Michigan shoreland by Sheboygan County can be chalked up as a win for the lake, its aquatic and terrestrial environments and the creatures and human beings whose lives are enhanced by access to one of nature’s great gifts.

    That win, sad to say, will be offset by the loss of a nearby tract of beautiful lakeshore land if the Kohler Co. is allowed to build a golf course there.


    Sheboygan County’s acquisition of an area known as Amsterdam Dunes just north of Ozaukee County will give the public access to 1,900 feet of beach and will protect wetlands vital to migratory waterfowl.


    The Kohler plan is a loss for the lakeshore because the land is pristine—247 acres of beaches, wetlands, dunes and old-growth forest in what amounts to a private nature preserve owned by the Kohler Co.


    The loss would be multiplied by the fact that its planned use as a golf course is a documented hazard to the environment. The chemical fertilizers and pesticides essential to golf courses can be expected to run off into the adjacent Black River (already listed by the DNR as an impaired waterway because of high levels of phosphorus) and into Lake Michigan. The destruction of the forest to make way for fairways and greens will eliminate habitat for various species of wildlife, including migratory birds.


    The loss would be exacerbated by the addition to the golf course of 3.8 acres of public land from the nearby Kohler-Andrae State Park.


    All of this for a golf course that is necessary only to fulfill a desire by Kohler chairman Herb Kohler for his company to have prestige of owning a course that will be recognized as one of the top 50 in the world.


    Kohler already owns the 36-hole Whistling Straits golf course on the lakeshore five miles north of Sheboygan.


    The new golf course needs the approval of the state Department of Natural Resources, and Kohler has been working on that. The only other thing that stands in the way of the conversion of an undisturbed lakeshore natural area to a golf course is the Town of Wilson, the small township in which the land is located. The golf course cannot be built without a conditional use permit from the town.

    Three hundred people attended a public hearing held by the town’s Plan Commission earlier this month; of the more than 70 people who spoke, only four supported the golf course proposal. Besides decrying the potential for river and lake pollution and the ruin of an old-growth forest, speakers pointed out that the golf course would not meet the requirements of the town’s master plan designed to limit impact on environmental corridors.


    How this opposition will stand up to Kohler power remains to be seen. The company is one of the largest corporations in Wisconsin, employing 30,000 people worldwide, with enormous influence in Sheboygan County, where its name is associated with the support of various causes, and where it owns the American Club resort as well as the renowned Whistling Straits.            The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Herb Kohler used his political clout to get approvals needed for the Whistling Straits course in 1996. A spokeswoman for Gov. Scott Walker has said that Kohler, who has made financial contributions to Walker’s campaigns, contacted the governor to discuss the state park easement needed from the DNR to acquire state parkland for the new golf course.


    Kohler’s spokesmen defend the golf course by asserting that it will generate jobs, attract visitors and increase the tax base.


    That may be true, but the replacement of distinctive and environmentally valuable natural lakeshore land with a golf course would be an exorbitant price to pay for those modest rewards.


    Nature and lake lovers can celebrate a big win for lakeshore protection and public access when the Sheboygan County purchase is finalized—and then cheer on those trying to prevent the loss that would come with approval of the new Kohler golf course.

 
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