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A quick twist in the Kwik Trip debate

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November 19, 2013 | 02:10 PM
A tense plan commission meeting Monday night brought out some predictable players and one surprisingly unpredictable one.

The discussion was whether to approve Kwik Trip’s request for a conditional use permit that would allow them to build a 6,000-square-foot convenience store/gas station on Williams Street, just off Broad Street in Lake Geneva (see story 1A). It was approved unanimously but not without drama.:::

There was the usual group of contrarians, sincere in their belief that the little man is being stomped on by The Powers That Be. To them, graft is the only explanation for a differing opinion.

There were gas station owners who have businesses near the planned Kwik Trip with concerns about the impact of another gas station on the environment.

There was also acknowledgment that Kwik Trip would jeopardize their businesses, but they knew that argument would not win the day. There was restaurant owner and former city alderman, Tom Hartz — a man after my heart, in the “why can’t we all get along” club. Everyone was predictable — fulfilling their own roles in this reality show — until it came time to vote.

That’s when the wild card was thrown on the table. Planning commission member and First District Alderman Gary Hougen, who had argued against rezoning at the last Plan Commission, moved to approve the Kwik Trip request. I was surprised and more than a little impressed. I would have been impressed if he had voted the other way.

He’s clearly a man of integrity. He wanted to do the right thing. Everyone there did, of course, but all in a way that expressed their personalities. The contrarians see no gray.

They’re the true believers and we need them. The gas station owners are fighting for their lives — hard to blame them for becoming environmentalists in that pursuit.

People like Tom Hartz and I think there’s wisdom in reasoned discussion — even if we sound a bit Pollyannaish at times.

But Hougen had the courage to do the unexpected, to do what he thought was right even if it seemed to contradict a previous position.

And he just didn’t go along with the apparent change of heart, he lead the charge. That takes real courage. In a phone interview Tuesday morning, Hougen went into more depth regarding his vote.

In reality, it was less a change of heart and more a change of circumstance that affected Hougen’s position.

Hougan said his real objection at the last plan commission meeting was against the change in zoning from planned development to general business.

That change allowed Kwik Trip’s request for a conditional use permit. Hougen’s hope is that the city can look at developing areas for specific purposes instead of just accepting what comes in.

But the zoning change was approved by the council, so his dream of developing the area in a more logical way was moot.

As a result, Hougen saw no persuasive reason to reject a Kwik Trip plan that was allowed by the city’s zoning code.

His apparent change of heart did not come from an under the table deal or impetuousness. His vote changed because the circumstances changed.

That sounds suspiciously like logic. Hougen’s vote did not come without his acknowledgement that Kwik Trip might have some negative consequences — like jeopardizing the other gas stations.

He wasn’t putting his head in the sand or denying reality. He seemed to show heart-felt concern for how his vote might affect others.

While those issues could be considered in rejecting the development, the overriding reason to approve Kwik Trip, in his mind, is that it would be the best currently available alternative for the area.

He saw his job as doing what he thought was best for the city, even if it might have some negative consequences.

We’re all familiar with the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

But it is the end of that quote that sheds the real light: “Speak what you think today in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words …”

We blindly honor consistency in our society. We clamor for it. But, sometimes, consistency should be trumped by changing realities.

What we really need are a few brave souls who don’t fit stereotypes, who will reconsider positions, who will be wild cards.

Who will respond to the issue at hand instead of playing the same role all the time. They’re the real change agents.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.

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