An emotional two-hour discussion likely ended a local organization’s prospects of opening a shelter in a West Baraboo church after the village Plan Commission recommended denying the shelter zoning request Thursday.
“It’s disappointing,” said the Rev. Dave Mowers, the Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter board president, after the decision. “Unfortunately in this case, we had kind of a perfect storm of reasons why they made the choice that they did.”
The organization had petitioned to change village zoning code to allow homeless shelters as conditional uses in R-1 districts, which consist of mostly single-family residences, because the West Baraboo Church of God on Shaw Street offered to allow the homeless shelter to occupy part of its building rent-free. Currently, such shelters aren’t allowed anywhere in West Baraboo.
But while the commission voted unanimously against allowing homeless shelters in R-1 districts, it also voted to recommend allowing homeless shelters as a conditional use in R-2, R-3, SRO-1 and SRO-2 districts, which include small-scale retail areas and multi-family residences.
Those decisions were based on the advice of village Zoning Administrator Jeremy Peach, who said he found homeless shelters to be more appropriate for medium- to high-density areas. He said a shelter would still be considered residential use, but would increase an area’s density, traffic and utility use, making it less compatible with single-family residences. There are exceptions for certain uses in R-1 districts, such as for schools, churches and community centers.
Aside from the zoning review, the commission considered feedback it’s received, the effect a shelter might have on village resources and how shelters in other cities have fared.
Drawing more than 30 people, including members of the homeless shelter board, local residents and West Baraboo Church of God congregants, the meeting included much more back-and-forth between audience members and the commission than a typical government meeting. Most who commented were in favor of the shelter.
Village President David Dahlke, who attended the meeting, said he’s been keeping track of emails and other correspondences sent to the village on this issue. They’ve been “probably 25 to one in support” but largely from people who don’t live in the village, he said. Dahlke added that nearly 20 West Baraboo residents had contacted him in the last day to voice their opposition.
When commission members pointed to the opposition from their constituents, several West Baraboo residents in attendance spoke up.
“We’re for it, and we’re here,” one said. “Where are the people that are against it?”
Another woman suggested local residents may not be at the meeting because they don’t want to be accused of being hateful for opposing a homeless shelter. Members of the commission also occasionally said that they have compassion for homeless people before expressing their concerns.
“I feel really sorry for these people, but I just — we need to work to find another place,” citizen commission member Gary Kowalke said.
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Shelter leaders said they have searched extensively but haven’t been able to find another suitable space within their budget. Now, Mowers said the shelter board will discuss its options.
“I think coming back to the village and to our other municipalities to ask for taxpayer dollars to acquire a building is definitely on the table now. We weren’t allowed to use the free building we were given and now we’ve gotta figure out how to find a place,” he said.
Commission member Dennis Parsons said he tried to keep an open mind but, while doing his own research, heard about shelters not working out in residential areas in Madison and Rockford, Illinois.
Commission Chairwoman Claire Barnett took issue with comparing those larger cities’ experiences to West Baraboo. She said it was important to look at testimony from shelters in areas like Portage and Reedsburg instead.
“I understand there are horrible problems in some parts of the country,” she said. “Doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be here.”
Barnett also noted that the content of messages sent to the village is more important than the raw numbers of people for or against. She pointed to a flyer that had been posted at Haskins Park and distributed around the neighborhood as containing “a lot of misinformation” about homeless shelters.
Mowers submitted a document that examined the claims made in the flyer, finding that shelters in Baraboo, Portage and Reedsburg had no impact on crime and little on city resources, among other conclusions.
Barnett said she liked the idea of giving the shelter a chance as conditional use, because then the village could impose performance standards and a time limit that could allow it to end a project if it doesn’t work out.
But ultimately it was the prospect of the zoning change applying to all R-1 properties — not just specific areas within the district that could be compatible with a shelter — that led some members of the commission to vote against the shelter board’s request, despite being otherwise more open to the idea.
“I agree with giving them (the shelter) a chance,” said trustee Michael Wetak. “But that’s what makes me nervous is the whole R-1.”
The West Baraboo Village Board is expected to consider the Plan Commission’s recommendations at its monthly meeting Thursday. As an advisory body, the commission’s decisions aren’t prescriptive — the board could choose to adopt them or send the issue back to the commission for further consideration.
Barnett asked Dahlke and the rest of the board to use criteria to judge the residents’ input.
“Some of the letters that I read, the people were objecting in a not-in-my-neighborhood sort of thing with almost made-up reasons,” Barnett said.