September 21, 2008

Concordia Yields on Building Atop Bluff Environmental Center Will Be Set Back 75 Feet


Mequon -- Should a university environmental center that will focus much of its work on Lake Michigan be as close to the lake as possible -- or is that environmentally unsound?

Concordia University and divided City of Mequon officials have wrestled with that for several months.

Last week -- as the city prepared to take itself to court over the issue -- Concordia abandoned its plan for that location. Rather than being atop the visually spectacular and environmentally sensitive Lake Michigan bluff, the Concordia Center for Environmental Stewardship will be set back at least 75 feet from the bluff line to comply with a city ordinance.

"We want this to be a building that the community in its entirety widely embraces," said Concordia President Patrick Ferry. "We had no intention of it becoming the focus of controversy in any way."

The brief history of the building, for which the university hopes to break ground in spring, is unusual.

Concordia's campus runs along the Lake Michigan bluff line. It told the city in May it wanted to raze its Peace Center dormitory and build the 16,500-square-foot environmental center just east of there. The views of the lake would have been breathtaking, and Ferry said the center would have been used for teaching and special events.

There was a problem, however. Mequon has a code, in place since at least 1994, that prohibits buildings from being within 75 feet of the bluff line.

Citing the setback rule, the city's assistant planner, Jac Zader, in July denied the university's request for a variance. He said Concordia did not prove that the city code, which is meant to prevent erosion of the bluff and protect the natural vista, prevents the school from developing the property or is overly burdensome.

Concordia appealed Zader's decision. In a 3-2 decision last month, the city Board of Appeals overrode Zader's decision and granted the variance.

"I felt (Concordia) had made the case that it limited their ability to build it where they wanted . . . and would have made a detrimental effect on the objectives they would have tried to achieve," said Appeals Board Chairman William Hughes III, who voted with the majority.

Other city leaders, however, were alarmed by the prospect of an exception to the setback rule.

This month, the Common Council weighed in, voting 5-2, with one alderman absent, to essentially have the city take itself to court. The vote authorized the city to challenge the Board of Appeals decision by taking the question to an Ozaukee County circuit judge.

Ald. John Wirth said he voted against going to court because there was no indication that the Board of Appeals did not exercise its authority properly.

"They looked at the details, and we didn't," he said of the Common Council.

But Ald. Dan Abendroth, who voted with the majority to go to court, said the Board of Appeals erred because Concordia did not show any evidence that the environmental center had to be built on the bluff rather than 75 feet from it.

"We have that (code) to protect the bluff, to protect the environment," he said.

With the court action authorized but not yet filed, Ferry met Tuesday with Mayor Christine Nuernberg and City Administrator Lee Szymborski. He told them Concordia would give up its effort to put the environmental center on the bluff and instead abide by the setback rule.

The bluff "was a perfect location," particularly given that the university last year finished a $12 million project to stabilize the bluffs, Ferry said. But he said he understood some city officials and others in Mequon "don't want anything built inside that 75-foot setback."

Ferry also acknowledged that the environmental center can still be an important addition to Concordia even if it is set back from the bluff line. And the new location will save nearly $2 million on construction costs for what is now expected to be a $3.5 million building, he said.

"This makes it easier to plan and to build it within the budget," Ferry said.

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