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Williams Bay moratorium petition voted down over legal concerns
University of Chicago property

Williams Bay moratorium petition voted down over legal concerns

Observatory woods map

A map showing what is commonly referred to as the Observatory Woods is shown. It’s a property near Yerkes Observatory that a local land preservation group is trying to halt development on.

WILLIAMS BAY — A petition for direct legislation to place a development moratorium on lakefront property has been voted down by the village board and will not move forward to referendum.

Village trustees struck down the petition in a 5 to 1 vote after citing potential legal issues which could arise from halting development on about nine acres of lakefront property owned by the University of Chicago during a March 1 village board meeting.

The University of Chicago is currently applying to have the property rezoned from institutional to residential, which would allow future developers to build homes on the property after the university sells the land. The university has submitted a proposal to the village which would divide the property into three lots, allowing for the construction of one home per lot.

The petition, which was created by the grassroots Williams Bay Association for Land Preservation, was signed by about 260 village residents and called for a moratorium of any development on the untouched lakefront property just south of the Yerkes Observatory.

Many consider the property to be one of the last untouched lakefront parcels on Geneva Lake. Some residents also believe the property may contain historically valuable Native American artifacts, although a University of Chicago-funded survey found no evidence of such artifacts.

During the meeting, trustees expressed concerns over approving the petition or having it move to referendum because such a motion would conflict with the legal opinion offered by village attorney Mark Schroeder — who said in a written statement that a development moratorium cannot be enacted through a petition for direct legislation under state statutes.

Trustee George Vlach said during the meeting that the safest option for the village is to align with its attorney’s opinion and to both deny approval of the petition and to vote against sending it to what would be a binding referendum.

“I think if we move it to a referendum after being advised from our attorney that it doesn’t meet the legal standard, it’s not going to be good,” he said.

Village President Bill Duncan questioned during the meeting if the village’s insurance would cover the village in a legal battle if trustees voted against the advice of its attorney.

Trustee Don Parker also said during the meeting placing a moratorium on the property would also restrict the University of Chicago from building an institutional building on the property, which may violate their rights as property owners.

He said because the property is currently zoned as institutional, there is nothing stopping the university from building a dormitory building or some other institutional structure on the property.

Trustee Robert Umans said at some point if residential development is not permitted, the university may decide to sell the land with its current zoning to another institution which could build on the land.

“An institutional buyer can buy it and put an institutional building up there, a retirement home or anything and we have no control over that,” he said during the meeting.

Trustee Jim D’Alessandro said during the meeting he was in favor of having additional discussions on the petition and potential liability the village could face before moving forward.

He also said with the village close to plotting its comprehensive plan for the next decade, the village should place all rezoning requests on hold until the plan is established.

“I still think we shouldn’t be doing any rezone requests right now,” he said. “We should just go through our comprehensive plan process.”

He said considering rezoning requests through the new comprehensive plan would allow the village to better charter which direction it would like to go in terms of future land use.

D’Alessandro also said he did not want to vote against a petition so many village residents supported.

“There are 260 residents that signed this and I’m not going to totally ignore them,” he said.

Following trustee discussions, Umans motioned to reject the petition and not have the petition move to referendum.

Duncan, Parker, Vlach, Umans and trustee Jen McMannamy all voted in favor of the motion while D’Alessandro voted against it. Trustee Lowell Wright was not present for the meeting.

While voting against the proposal because of possible legal challenges, McMannamy praised the Williams Bay Association for Land Preservation for their efforts in creating the petition.

“I don’t want to discount the efforts this group has made to bring this to the board and to bring it in front of the full village,” she said. “I think it takes a lot of guts, it takes patience and persistence and I really congratulate them for doing it.”

While the petition for moratorium has been rejected, the village board will continue considerations of the University of Chicago rezoning request of the lakefront property.

During the meeting Duncan said the village will be publicizing future meetings where the village will consider the University of Chicago’s rezoning request, and that there will be opportunities for the public to meet in person and to comment on the request.

“There’s opportunity for at least two, perhaps three, public hearings as a part of the long process,” he said.

Duncan said he is considering holding a public meeting on April 1 in the Williams Bay School District gymnasium, which would allow room for residents to social distance themselves.

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