TOWN OF VERNON — A proposal for a wedding barn in the town will now be heard before an examiner after elected officials engaged in conduct that could have otherwise generated bias in their consideration of the project.
Vernon residents Michael and Joi Alex have requested a conditional use permit for an event barn, which would be located at the Halverson House, a Carpenter Gothicstyle home built in the 1920s at S110-W2345 County Line Road.
In addition to the Alex family’s permanent residence,
the Halverson House would be used to host catered weddings, private family rentals, farm dinners, farm rentals and corporate events, according to the plan of operation.
The weekend before elected officials were slated to consider the wedding barn proposal at an Aug. 14 meeting, some of them attended a tour of the Halverson House property, which is considered “ex parte communication” under Act 67.
A state law enacted in 2017, Act 67 changed the rules for how municipalities vote on conditional use permits in Wisconsin. A central component of Act 67 is that it requires municipalities to approve conditional use permits when there is evidence
the permits meet standards provided in the municipal code.
When there is a public hearing for a conditional use permit, citizens are required to present substantial evidence to support arguments such as the proposed development would lower surrounding property values, threaten public health and safety, or is not compatible with the surrounding property.
However, elected officials are not allowed to an engage in ex parte communication or any discussion about the proposal with anyone outside of a municipal meeting.
As a result of Act 67, the process municipal governments go through to consider conditional use permits is now “quasi-judicial,” meaning public hearings for conditional use permits have similar characteristics to those of court proceedings.
Thus, the judge, and in this case, Vernon elected officials, could have a bias towards the event barn proposal since they toured the property in advance of the vote. Moreover, Town Chairman Carl Fortner discussed the project with town residents who neighbor the Halverson House, said John Macy, Vernon attorney.
Town Supervisor Ed Moline, who announced he would not be able to attend the Aug. 14 meeting, wrote a letter to the Town Board stating he was in favor of the project. Moline effectively took a position on the proposal without having heard the facts of the proposal. Moline’s conduct is not illegal or inappropriate; however, he is unable to vote, Macy said.
“This is their first major (conditional use) and they were following the old procedures and old law, not realizing under the new law, they couldn’t do some of the stuff they use to be able to do,” Macy said.
Due to several instances of ex parte communication, Macy recommended a public hearing for the event barn be held before Examiner and City of Pewaukee Municipal Judge John Fuchs.
Fuchs will make a recommendation on whether to approve or deny the conditional use permit based on evidence presented at the public hearing. The Plan Commission and Town Board will still have to vote, but their vote will be based on Fuchs’ recommendation rather than the evidence presented at the hearing.
Rather than vote on the proposal on Aug. 14, elected officials chose to follow Macy’s recommendation to maintain a fair and unbiased process, said Jeff Millies, town supervisor.
The owners anticipate a total of 25 to 35 wedding events per year, 12 to 17 home rentals, 5 to 10 farm dinners, 2 to 4 corporate events and 2 to 4 family rentals, according to the plan of operations. The event barn would be operational by the spring of 2020.
The Halverson House is an approximately 4,000-squarefoot- home with 7 bedrooms, 2 full and 1 half baths. The Alex family plans to use the residence as a private home as well as an event barn venue.
Barn events would accommodate up to 200 occupants while bed and breakfasts would have up to 14 occupants. The owners say events will be focused on family and centered around food.
“Whether it be a catered wedding banquet, private family rental, or chef-hosted farm dinner, food has been a central part of our family and we think it’s a common bond that many other families can celebrate around, grow with and enjoy,” the plan states.
However, Millies said some residents are concerned with how the event barn could impact the community and neighboring properties. In fact, residents neighboring the Halverson House have begun circulating a petition against the project, Millies added.
“The neighbors’ concerns are with noise and traffic,” Millies said.
The public hearing will take place Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Town Hall, W249S8910 Center Drive, Big Bend.