WILLIAMS BAY – Village leaders are seeking public feedback on plans for building new homes along the lakefront on the former Yerkes Observatory campus.
A special joint meeting of the plan commission and village board has been scheduled for 6 p.m. July 22 at a location to be determined, possibly inside Williams Bay High School.
The village is inviting public opinion on plans by the University of Chicago to sell portions of the former Yerkes Observatory campus for new residential development on forested land overlooking Geneva Lake.
The university’s proposal is stirring concerns that it would disturb the natural environmental quality of the Yerkes site, and that it would conflict with environmental protections applied in the area.
Village President Bill Duncan said while there is no legal recourse for permitting development on such an environmental corridor, the village will consider such implications when weighing the University of Chicago’s proposal.
“I know the village would like to preserve as much of the woods as possible,” Duncan said. “That’s my opinion — we want to be sensitive to that.”
University spokesman Jeremy Manier said administrators have been aware of the protections of the environmental corridor and also aware that the community wanted to avoid high-density development along the lakefront.
Manier said the university’s proposal for new homes reflects a low-density development plan consistent with what has happened on neighboring properties.
“The Village has not identified any ordinances or regulations that limit development on the basis of the environmental corridor,” he wrote in an email. “We have endeavored to propose a plan that is consistent with the surrounding residential parcels and have voluntarily limited the development of each lot to a single-family residence.”
The university, which donated the observatory and surrounding acreage to a private foundation, is seeking a rezoning of the remaining acreage so it can be sold to private buyers for new home construction.
The village must amend its comprehensive plan for the former Yerkes campus to allow for the rezoning.
A village plan commission recommendation to approve the comprehensive plan amendment for the University of Chicago is pending before the village board.
During a June 15 village board meeting, former trustee Jim Killian, who participated in early discussions surrounding the Yerkes donation, weighed in on the comprehensive plan amendment.
Killian said there is not enough known yet about building capabilities on the lakefront property.
“Unfortunately I believe the village board is moving too quickly,” he said.
In its application for the comprehensive plan amendment, the University of Chicago submitted plans showing lakefront property would be divided into three lots. The lots are listed as covering 1.99 acres, 2.22 acres and 4.51 acres.
Village zoning administrator Bonnie Schaeffer has reported that an environmental corridor overlay on the property recommends residential development at a density no greater than one unit per five acres.
Environmental corridors are areas containing concentrations of significant natural resources designated by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. The commission recommends preserving and protecting such corridor.
In her report, Schaeffer noted that Williams Bay’s comprehensive plan calls protection of such environmental areas “an essential planning objective for the preservation of open natural spaces.”
Schaeffer, however, has not issued a recommendation on whether the village should support the University of Chicago proposal.
The university has offered to share proceeds from its land sales with the Yerkes Future Foundation, the private group hoping to restore the observatory and reopen it for public usage.
But before buyers of the university land can build new homes, the village must rezone the lots from “public and institutional” to a large residential lot classification.
The plan commission in June recommended the comprehensive plan change, but not without opposition.
Plan commission member Jane Pegel voted against the recommendation, saying she wanted the village to first become more familiar with the property and what is build-able there.
Pegel said the property includes a steep slope that may pose problems with construction.
“I feel the village officials should be aware of what they are getting involved with before considering the application — rather than after a decision has been made,” she said.
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