The West Baraboo Village Board ended an organization’s bid to open a homeless shelter in a village church on Thursday, but discussed starting an ad hoc committee to further explore the issue of homelessness in the area.
“I am ashamed to be on the village board,” Trustee Jim Bowers said after he was the sole member to vote against the resolution.
With Trustee Michael Wetak absent, village board members voted 5-1 to change zoning code to allow homeless shelters as conditional uses in higher density residential districts as well as small-scale retail districts, but not in single-family residential areas known as R-1 districts.
The Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter and the West Baraboo Church of God originally petitioned to allow shelters in R-1 districts so the nonprofit organization could open a facility at the church, which is located across from Haskins Park.
Board members cited the advisory Plan Commission recommendation among the reasons to adopt the resolution. The zoning administrator had told the commission that a homeless shelter wasn’t compatible with a low-density residential area.
Other reasons included opposition by village residents. Village President David Dahlke said he has gotten calls and emails from constituents who mostly are against the idea of a shelter across from the park.
Bowers compared the village’s situation to the school district’s recent controversy with an offensive photo. He said he felt the “dark cloud” over the community has finally dissipated.
“I feel that a vote in favor of the recommendation from the Plan Commission is going to bring another dark cloud in the community, but it’s not going to be in the Baraboo School District — it’s going to be hanging over West Baraboo, and I don’t want any part of that,” he said.
Trustees Mike Arndt and David Bauman criticized the approach taken by the shelter organization and the church, saying they should have communicated better with neighbors to prevent the spread of misinformation. Bauman said he believed village representatives were treated unfairly on social media and that shelter proponents unfairly cast anyone against the proposal as not caring for those in need.
“At certain points, it felt to me like mob rule,” Dahlke said, referring to previous meetings at which dozens of people urged the village to allow the shelter. “I do not operate … on mob rule where I’m getting called and I’m getting harassed and I’m getting threatened.”
The Rev. Dave Mowers, president of the shelter board, made a final plea to the board to reject the zoning recommendation. He said by preventing the West Baraboo church from donating its space rent-free to the shelter organization, their efforts could be delayed until after next winter, putting lives at risk.
“This is a train wreck we can see coming from far away, and you have it in your power to do something,” he said.
Mowers asked the village board to consider contributing funds — either village funds or personal donations — to help the shelter organization purchase its own building, an endeavor he estimates will cost at least $200,000. He said he plans to ask the same of the city of Baraboo and Sauk County.
Three West Baraboo residents spoke up at Thursday’s meeting. Michelle Smith said the proposed shelter would have a disproportionate cost to village residents and noted she would be willing to donate for a shelter to open “where it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Brian Smith suggested the Sauk County jail be used as a homeless shelter since it already has sleeping quarters and ready security, if homelessness is a countywide issue.
Jason Baumgartner, who stated in a February email that he intended to organize opposition to the shelter, asked Mowers why the West Baraboo church was the only option available.
“How are these huge churches in the city of Baraboo not opening their doors, but yet the Church of God, which is a very small church, has to take on that burden?” he asked.
Mowers said his church, Trinity Episcopal, isn’t set up to serve as a shelter for “a variety of reasons.” Others churches, he said, are discussing options now.
After the vote, Arndt said he wants the village to form an ad hoc committee on homelessness with Bowers — who agreed — as chairman. The issue likely will be discussed at upcoming board meetings.