ELKHORN — A battle over a proposed domestic violence shelter is moving ahead with no break in an emotional community debate about whether the facility would solve problems or create problems.
Members of the Elkhorn Plan Commission deadlocked on the issue July 11 after shelter supporters and opponents engaged in a raucous exchange over the proposal.
The plan commission’s 3-3 tie vote on whether to recommend a permit for the project sends the issue forward to the Elkhorn City Council without clear direction on how to resolve the dispute.
The seven-member city council is expected in August to consider the proposal from the New Beginnings group, which is seeking to open a shelter inside a former medical clinic at 20 N. Church St. in downtown Elkhorn. The property is being donated by a group that includes former clinic operator Aurora Health Care.
Supporters say the shelter would help to combat domestic violence throughout Walworth County by allowing New Beginning to offer emergency overnight housing for victims and their children.
“Our community is in need of a safe haven,” New Beginnings director Heidi Lloyd told the plan commission.
The Elkhorn-based nonprofit group estimates that it serves more than 600 domestic violence victims a year.
Neighbors of the Church Street property oppose the shelter, largely because they fear that it would bring domestic violence perpetrators and other troubles into the area.
“I guarantee you — the bad guys come,” neighbor Dan Alder said. “When they come, the drugs come, the alcohol comes.”
One opponent turned and confronted shelter backers in a packed hearing room, prompting commission members to call for a stop to such outbursts.
The plan commission action followed two hours of public testimony and debate.
In a symbolic move, the commission voted 4-2 to forward the matter to the city council with no recommendation — which was effectively what would have happened anyway with the 3-3 tie vote.
New Beginnings, also known as the Association for Prevention of Family Violence, has been trying to establish an emergency shelter for more than two years. With no such facility in Walworth County, victims sometimes must be sent as far away as Madison or Milwaukee to find safe harbor from their attackers.
When the old medical clinic in downtown Elkhorn became available, agency officials petitioned the city last fall for a conditional use permit to transform the property into new headquarters for New Beginnings plus overnight accommodations for abuse victims and their children.
Neighbors and other opponents raised objections, so New Beginnings postponed its request to the city and spent months reassessing its proposal.
Lloyd told plan commission members that the blueprint has been downsized to include shelter accommodations from up to 12 people, rather than the original 20 people. She also said a security plan has been assembled using a professional consultant to keep the shelter safe.
Referring to opponents, Lloyd said: “We listened, and we acted, and we made changes.”
The 9,400-square-foot former medical clinic is located across the street from the Elkhorn Police Department, and law enforcement officials have endorsed the shelter plan.
Walworth County District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld attended the plan commission meeting in a show of support.
Former Whitewater Police Chief Lisa Otterbacher addressed the commission and described incidents of domestic violence that she has witnessed over the years. Otterbacher said it is important for Walworth County to have a place where victims can take refuge.
“We need a safe place for people to go,” she said. “We need this shelter.”
Supporters presented a petition they said was signed by more than 800 people throughout Walworth County. Opponents last year submitted a petition signed by more than 100 people.
Opponents also have voiced concerns about the effect that New Beginnings would have on surrounding property values, historic preservation efforts, traffic congestion and business.
Some neighbors fighting the project have hired an attorney to make their case to the city.
Before considering the matter July 11, plan commission members met behind closed doors for 20 minutes to discuss the possibility of litigation.
Attorney Christina Green, representing the neighbors, addressed the commission publicly and criticized the New Beginnings permit request on technical details. Green said her clients would support a shelter in a different location.
“We agree we need a shelter,” she said. “But you have to do it the right way.”