An environmental study to look at soil composition and determine if there are soil contaminants was approved for the Knapp Street housing development project. The Chetek Common Council voted to approve the measure on Jan. 14.
It is the latest step in the city’s long-term plan to have 39 acres of land, southeast of the intersection of Knapp and 15th Street, developed into residential housing. Citing a shortage of affordable single-family homes, twin homes and rentals, city leaders purchased the property from Jennie-O in June 2018. The property was a former turkey farm.
The idea was to develop it into affordable housing—not low-income—that could attract new residents and help ease the workforce shortage.
But a year and a half later, many questions and challenges in attracting developers have slowed down progress on the project.
The Chetek Plan Commission requested an engineering firm be hired to start the first steps of the development project. Advanced Engineering Concepts, of Eau Claire, had presented an engineering, platting and construction management plan, at a cost of no more than $116,000.
The environmental study is one small part of AEC’s plan, and approved á la carte, by the council.
For nearly an hour, the council discussed how to start the development project and what costs might be incurred or avoided.
Council member Earl Grover, Ward 2, asked if there were any underground tanks on the property. He said he had heard from residents tanks once existed. He was concerned about contaminated soil at the former turkey farm.
Public Works Director Dan Knapp said he has looked at Department of Natural Resources listings and had found no records of underground tanks. Knapp and Mayor Jeff Martin noted that an environmental study was included in AEC’s plan. Knapp noted the environmental study is required before any platting or engineering work begins.
“We need to be very cautious and careful and make sure we don’t rush into something immediately; until we know for sure we don’t have these contaminants,” Grover said.
Council member Terry Hight, Ward 3, asked if the environmental study could be approved alone, before approving other parts of AEC’s plan. Grover agreed that would be a good idea.
Grover asked if there would be an open forum for residents. Martin interjected that it was still an idea and not a solid enough of a project to present for a public forum.
Hight felt there were still too many questions to justify spending more money on the development.
“Have we exhausted our search for developers?” Hight asked. “We’ve only talked to one developer and seemed to take his advice like gold.”
The decision to buy the property had come before his time on the council, but Hight said he felt the city had been talked into this idea by an engineering firm that was no longer involved with the project. Not enough due diligence had been done, he said.
Martin countered that hiring services from AEC was a part of answering the unknown questions and the project intended to tackle the affordable housing shortage—a well documented problem for Barron County.
“There was  acres that Jennie-O wasn’t going to sell to anyone but us,” Martin said. “We had the money. We bought the property with the hope of a future development. We’re trying to address a need.”
Hight said it was unconventional. “You’re hard-pressed to find another municipally that has put itself in a position of being a developer,” Hight said. He and Grover said other developers should be sought.
Given the market and area Chetek is in, a large developer isn’t going to come in and start the whole project on their own, said City Clerk/Treasurer Carmen Newman. Council member Mark Edwards, Ward 4, also agreed.
But the city could start the development using funds from a recently closed tax incremental district, Newman said. It was a low-risk project that avoided burdening taxpayers or the city utility rates.
Hight said he felt the use of the TID funds for this development was unfair to existing residents, who would see no direct benefit from it. It also put the city at competition with local developers. The money and could be better put to other uses, he said.
Newman noted that each part of AEC’s plan needs council approval, meaning it has the authority to control spending at each step.
Edwards noted the city had already made the investment in the property. The environmental study was the first step, and if the city needed to stop the project at some later point, it still could. Grover agreed, but was concerned about potential hidden and ballooning costs.
Hight said he thought the question of attracting a developer could have been answered before the property was purchased by the city and money was spent.
“The way I see it, the 39 acres are probably not going to be developed out before the TID [ends in 20 years],” Hight said.
Council member Scott Bachowski, Ward 1, noted a developer in Rice Lake was not interested in Chetek.
“He told us, you’re not going to find a developer to come in here,” Bachowski said.
Instead, Bachowski said local builders could potentially piecemeal the project—a few homes at a time. When sold, they would add to the city’s tax base, he noted.
While questions still plagued the council, members concluded that the environmental study could move forward, alone.
The study was approved unanimously after a motion by Edwards and second by Grover.