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Care for Lake Geneva keeps eye on city hall



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July 03, 2012 | 12:53 PM
They want city officials to know they're keeping an eye on them.

A new civic group called Care for Lake Geneva had its kickoff meeting June 19 at the Maxwell Mansion, 421 Baker St.

About 70 people attended.

The group's leadership list includes Casey Schiche, president; Grace Hanny, vice president; Richard Marra Jr., treasurer; Margaret Lass-Gardiner and Dick Malmin.

Schiche and Hanny promised that there will be more meetings in the future.

Among those who attended the meeting included former city council members Ed Yaeger, Terry O'Neill, Penny Roehrer and Mary Jo Fesenmaier and Lake Geneva Municipal Judge Henry Sibbing, who noted he was attending the meeting as a private citizen.

Also there was Kim Peterson, Democratic candidate for Wisconsin State Assembly District 32.

O'Neill was circulating a petition to get a recently-approved city council ordinance that changes the city's elected city treasurer to an appointed position. O'Neill supports keeping the position elected.

On the group's website, Alderman Gary Hougen is listed as a "friend and neighbor."

Attendees seemed to be an eclectic group. Residents were represented, as were business owners. Also attending were those who live in surrounding towns but consider Lake Geneva to be the center of the local communities.

In particular, Care for Lake Geneva is keeping an eye on the 710 acres on the city's south side currently owned by a group called Geneva Ridge Joint Venture, headed by Illinois developer Robert Hummel, and for sale for $22.4 million.

Many who claim connections or membership in the group had been in opposition to a proposed plan to create a residential subdivision and resort/spa on part of a 710-acre plat on the south side of the city.

City action to prevent development of the land led to lawsuits by Hummel and a partner, Mirbeau, a New York hotel developer, claiming more than $100 million in damages.

The lawsuits were recently settled for less than $4 million, and paid for by the city's insurance carrier.

While happy about the settlement and that Hummel is now selling the land, members of Care for Lake Geneva were less than happy with events that led up to the settlement.

The group is calling for a more transparent city government.

They are particularly displeased with the city council's decision last September to change the city's 2010 master plan to allow residential and commercial development on the 710 aces.

At the time, aldermen would not say whether changes made to the master plan were linked to the court settlements.

Because discussions about the master plan changes were in closed session, no alderman would say that the master plan change and the lawsuit settlements were connected.

Schiche and others have claimed that the city was bullied into a settlement.

"Why the secrecy?" asked Malmin.

O'Neill resigned as alderman in May, in part, because of his frustration with not being able to talk about items discussed in closed session.

Sibbing, a longtime supporter of preserving the Hillmoor Golf Course, also gave a presentation to the group about the importance of preserving Hillmoor as public land, regardless if it comes back as a golf course.

Sibbing said the property is a community asset that should benefit the residents.

Hillmoor Golf Course was started in the early 1920s as a private-public partnership to create a public golf course in Lake Geneva. The city donated about 34 acres of land and issued a 99-year lease to ensure the golf course project succeeded. Although golfers can still use the course's driving range, Hillmoor stopped being a golf course in 2008 when its former owner, developer George Wight, filed for bankruptcy.

The property was subsequently sold at Sheriff's auction, and has been on the market. But the former links is apparently caught in a legal gray zone where ownership is uncertain, and may even involve a bank in France, according to City Administrator Dennis Jordan.

Sibbing served on a five-member "green ribbon" committee that studied the current situation of the golf course, which is on Highway 50.

After the meeting, Sibbing said he believes that all of the tensions that accrued around the Hummel- Mirbeau lawsuits and the controversy between a former mayor and some city council members probably made the council gun-shy about taking on any large projects, like preserving Hillmoor.

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