Wednesday, September 19, 2018

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Trying to find room for parks in Eau Claire

City leaders dust off proposal to make developers dedicate land or money

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    Brittney Davis holds her son, Kason Leland, 11 months, while pushing her other son, Zyler Leland, 2, on a swing at Oakwood Hills Neighborhood Playground on Thursday near her house in Eau Claire. The city is revisiting a proposal to make housing developers pay fees or set aside land for new parks.

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More houses were coming to fill in vacant land on Eau Claire’s northeast side, but those who already live there were dismayed to see the new subdivisions didn’t include a park they’d longed for.

When Haselwander Brothers sought city approval this summer for 27 lots for homes along La Salle Street — the local developer’s eighth phase of its Independence Park subdivision — Julie O’Brien and her fellow neighbors spoke out.

Their pleas to the Plan Commission and City Council succeeded in delaying approvals for the new homes so city leaders, neighbors and the developer could come up with a deal to provide a park that the Princeton Valley area had sought for years.

Haselwander won its approvals last month with an agreement that requires the developer to make and maintain a grass walking trail through the neighborhood and give 1.13 acres to the city for a future playground and small park along West Princeton Valley Road.

The situation is one reason why the city is resurrecting an idea that Eau Claire had previously passed on — an ordinance requiring developers to set aside land or pay a fee toward new parks when homes are built in a neighborhood.

It’s an idea that O’Brien thinks is worthwhile.

“We have plenty of space in Eau Claire, and we don’t want to make a city with housing and no parks,” she said in an email. “We need to be good stewards of our environment.”

Time to return

Councilwomen Emily Berge and Kate Beaton, have taken up the cause of reviving what is called a parkland dedication ordinance. Berge, who represents the city’s north side including Princeton Valley on the City Council, said the presence or promise of parks are among considerations people have when choosing where they live.

“It’s about increasing the quality of life and making sure that happens,” she said of a potential parkland dedication ordinance.

The City Council passed on the idea in 2002 and 2008, but it could have a better shot now.

There has been 100 percent turnover of Eau Claire’s elected officials since then, a long-range city plan recommends revisiting such an ordinance this year and the Princeton Valley agreement brought new attention to the issue.

“This is something I’ve been interested in doing since I was elected two years ago,” Beaton said. “I finally feel we have enough momentum.”

She credits the Princeton Valley residents with lending a voice to the issue, and added that she’s also heard comments from residents who have wanted to maintain green space when other developments came, too.

“We need to have development happening, but that’s all the more reason to assure folks who are already here and moving here that they’ll have green space to enjoy,” Beaton said.

The councilwomen have researched the city’s previous attempts to come up with an ordinance, but before proposing a new version, they want some community conversations about the idea. In addition to city officials, those gatherings would include residents and others who would be affected by a parkland ordinance.

“We know it’s important to invite developers too,” Berge said.

Before those talks though, the first group to broach the issue will be the city’s Plan Commission, which will review the history of the topic and debate it during a 7 p.m. Tuesday meeting at the Eau Claire school district administration building, 500 Main St. The city opted to have the discussion at that meeting, which has a light agenda aside from reviewing a site plan for a new repair shop for Northwest Truck Service on Robin Road.

Previous tries

The city’s previous attempts for parkland dedication favored fees because setting aside land would be impractical given how developers tend to propose smaller subdivisions in Eau Claire than larger cities.

A memo from senior city planner Pat Ivory state that in 2002 the city proposed a $350 fee per new dwelling unit that would go toward buying parkland, but that didn’t get adopted.

Then in 2008, the city considered a multi-tiered approach that would’ve charged $516 per single-family home, $439 per duplex or $325 for each unit in an apartment building. If it would’ve been in place, the city would’ve gotten $67,000 in fees that year, according to Ivory’s memo. However, it also noted that the basic infrastructure of a couple city parks proposed at the time was about $1.1 million each.

That proposal also failed, but led to a task force in 2009 that came up with some alternatives, such as continuing to borrow for park improvements, soliciting more volunteer work and designing them with lower maintenance needs to reduce costs.

The city does have some provisions in its zoning and subdivision ordinances that have been used to reserve open spaces, Ivory notes, which have led to play lots in some neighborhoods. However, a parkland dedication ordinance would add the option for the fee on new housing.

Like Berge, Ivory anticipates talks with neighborhood associations and groups including the Chippewa Valley Home Builders Association will occur in coming months. The process of drafting a new version of a parkland dedication ordinance could go into early 2019, he noted.

Other communities throughout Wisconsin already have such an ordinance, including Altoona, Menomonie, River Falls and Hudson.

Berge said some constituents who have moved from elsewhere have asked her why Eau Claire doesn’t have a parkland dedication ordinance.

“They’ve come from communities that had this and said ‘Why doesn’t Eau Claire have this?’” Berge said.

Contact: 715-833-9204,, @ADowd_LT on Twitter


- Eau Claire Plan Commission: Meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the boardroom at the Eau Claire school district administration building, 500 Main St.

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