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In Franklin, Meijer plan creates sharp divide in opinion

Size, location of store stirs controversy

July 7, 2012

Franklin - Where supporters of a Franklin Meijer store see an opportunity for expanded tax base, local job creation and a new place to shop, opponents see the loss of wetlands, more traffic and a store too large to fit the city's neighborhood feel.

The Franklin Plan Commission drew a full house Thursday as it met to consider a proposal to build a Meijer grocery and department store at the eastern corner of Loomis and St. Martin's roads.

And though Mayor Tom Taylor decreed in advance that the matter would be put off until the next meeting, that didn't stop a presentation and public comment period that lasted close to two hours and illuminated sharp schisms in public sentiment.

More than two dozen members of the public spoke, and their comments were almost evenly divided between support for the project and opposition.

"I'm in support of this," Sara Nowacki said. "I think Franklin needs more retail right now."

She was not the only one who said she leaves Franklin to shop.

But others feel the project is too just to big for the city.

"It's too much of a mega-mart for that corner, and it's just going to attract more development," said Karen Anderson.

Many on both sides said a smaller-scale, village-like 2004 project known as Crossroads, aimed at the same corner but not pursued, was a missed opportunity.

Ultimately, the vote was delayed. Taylor said it wouldn't be fair to the public to take such an important vote during a holiday week when many people, including two members of the commission, wouldn't have a chance to attend. Moreover, the city received a letter this week from the state Department of Natural Resources requesting it to postpone a decision to allow more time to study substantial wetland and floodplain issues presented by the plan.

Doesn't fit current codes

City Planning Manager Joel Dietl began the discussion by outlining a series of objections, including the fact that the size of the proposed Meijer building - more than 191,000 square feet - violates a city ordinance that caps building size at 125,000 square feet.

He argued that the size of the building was too large for the site, and that building there would require an ordinance change, several amendments to city code and a handful of special exceptions to environmental protection rules.

Presenting the case for the store, attorney Brian Randall ran through a history of the Meijer stores, based in Michigan, and said the location, at the junction of two state highways, 36 and 100, suggests a development of a regional scale, not the "neighborhood scale" that Taylor and others invoked as a guiding principle of Franklin development.

Randall and Meijer director of real estate Mike Flickinger, both said that no other site in Franklin was suitable, and that if this proposal died, Meijer would skip Franklin altogether and move on. Meijer plans the Franklin store to be its first location in Wisconsin.

"It's difficult, because other locations (that are planned) have not been announced, and it starts to have a domino effect," if Franklin kills the plan, Randall said.

"We do a lot of research, and we wouldn't build a building we couldn't justify," Flickinger said. He said a Meijer store at that location would draw customers from a base of 65,000 households, while Franklin itself only has about 18,000 households.

Wetlands a concern

David Behrens, principal in the firm GreenbergFarrow Architecture Inc., of Atlanta, gave a slide presentation on the site as it looks now - decorated with a dilapidated building - and as it would look with a Meijer store established. The slides demonstrated the changes Meijer had made to meet environmental and stylistic concerns, and the ways in which Meijer would landscape to keep truck bays and ugly roof mechanics out of the sight of neighbors.

Behrens and Randall agreed that even with all the efforts taken to minimize damage to the wetland, a significant portion of the company's mitigation plan was to buy wetland restoration credits, which would require it to restore, expand or create wetlands in another place.

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