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Church may keep ramp

City’s closed-session meeting illegal

By Angie Landsverk

Church of Christ gets to keep its recently constructed wheelchair ramp right where it is.

That is after Waupaca’s Board of Zoning Appeals approved a variance for the ramp by a vote of 5-0 on Monday, Oct. 26.

It was the second time the board approved the church’s request for a variance.

The first vote took place on July 13.

However, a complaint filed with the Waupaca County District Attorney’s office accusing the board of violating the Open Meetings Law resulted in the board having to rehear the case.

During the July 13 meeting, Brennan Kane, the city’s development director, told the board it could “close” the meeting and deliberate in private in an adjacent room.

City Administrator Henry Veleker told the Waupaca County Post that the complaint was filed shortly after that meeting. The district attorney’s office did not tell the city who filed the complaint, he said.

The church, which is located at 204 Maple St., proposed installing a wheelchair ramp along Waupaca Street.

The front yard setback on Waupaca Street is 19 feet, which is short of the 25-foot required front yard setback.

Kane’s executive summary regarding the request indicated that installing the ramp on that side of the church would impinge on the setback by an additional eight feet, bringing the setback to a total of 11 feet.

Gerold Bohm requested the variance on behalf of the church.

The city’s Community and Economic Development Department contended that the church had enough space and options to put the ramp to the north side of the building and accommodate the church’s needs.

The Board of Zoning Appeals had to consider three main criteria to justify granting a variance – unnecessary hardship, a unique property condition and no harm to the public interest.

In his application for a variance, Bohm outlined the reasons why the church did not want to build the wheelchair ramp on the north side of the building.

Those reasons included:
• The fact that the church has a restroom built in the north side of the building and did not believe it would be a good idea to have the handicap access go through the restroom.

• Accessing the building further toward the front of the auditorium would take away from the seating capacity and mean people would enter into the middle of the auditorium.

• The north side of the church has more ice build up during the winter, which means it would not be as safe.

Bohm said the church is more than 100 years old, and the auditorium is 6 to 7 feet above the sidewalk, which makes it difficult for handicapped people to enter it.

He also wrote that they did not believe the ramp would harm the public in any way, as it would be 16 feet from the street and not interfere with any sight lines from an automobile driver’s perspective.

Due to the Open Meetings Law violation during the July 13 meeting, the district attorney required that the hearing be reheard with a new decision.

The July 13 decision was null and void, as well as the building permit issued for the ramp, which was constructed.

The ramp was thus considered illegal and non-conforming to the city’s zoning code.

The first 45 minutes of this week’s Board of Zoning Appeals meeting included Open Meetings Law training with Dan Hill, of the UW-Extension office.

Kane said he “ill advised” the board when he said it could meet in private to discuss the request for a variance. He also said he was part of the reason why the training was taking place.

Hill said whenever a board has any doubts about whether it should go into a closed meeting, it should not.

In this week’s rehearing of the church’s request for a variance, Eric Olson, the board’s chairman, said, “We’re going to listen to them again as we did before.”

Bohm restated the reasons why the church requested the variance and noted that the ramp ended up being less of a structure than initially anticipated.

Olson asked Kane if he had heard any complaints since the ramp was built.

“I have not heard any complaints,” Kane said.

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