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New apartments approved in Abby

New apartments approved in Abby New apartments approved in Abby

Two new apartment buildings will soon be going up on Abbotsford’s northwest side after the city’s planning commission and council both signed off a controversial rezoning proposal and developer’s agreement last Thursday.

Despite vocal opposition from many city residents, the commission and city council voted to rezone five lots along Swampbuck Drive to allow for the construction of two additional Northside Apartments, which will provide housing for Abbyland Foods employees.

The planning commission vote was 4-3 in favor of rezoning, with commissioners Jim Weix, Lori Voss, Mason Rachu and Scott Christensen voting yes, and Jim Jakel, Gerry Anders and Marcia Hochhalter voting no. At a different meeting the same night, the council voted 5-2 to approve the commission’s recommendation, with Alds. Dennis Kramer and Brent Faber voting no.

Before the votes were cast, members of the commission and council listened for about an hour to local residents, most of whom registered their opposition to the proposed apartments. However, a few expressed support for the new buildings as a way to provide much-needed housing for people working locally.

The apartment manager of Northside Apartments and a representative of the construction company that built the apartments also addressed public safety concerns and complaints about the condition of the five existing apartments.

Under a developer’s agreement also approved Thursday, the city will provide the five lots to Abbyland owner Harland Schraufnagel for $1 per lot. In exchange, he agrees to build two new buildings that will add a total of $4.4 million in property value to the city’s TIF district.

Of the 17 people who spoke at the hearing, 14 expressed opposition to the apartment proposal, and three spoke in favor.

Each speaker was given three minutes to say their piece, forcing a few people to finish statements started by previous speakers.

Darla Viegut, a resident of the Sportsmens Addition who started a Facebook group in opposition to the rezoning proposal, said many do not feel like they are being treated fairly by local officials.

“We did this because we lost trust in what we were being told and what was demonstrated by our city government,” she said.

Viegut wanted to know why the city is not following a proposal approved last year that calls for duplexes instead of more apartments on the five lots targeted for rezoning. She said it seems like city officials had already worked out a deal with Abbyland for two new buildings before the public was even asked for input.

“I’m sorry for not getting involved sooner and I’m sorry for not seeing what’s happening. I see it now,” she said.

When she ran out of time, her daughter, Ky, finished her statement to the commission, urging officials to listen to all those who submitted emails (20 in all) in opposition to more apartments.

After paying property taxes on their house for 13 years, Mark Viegut said he found it “ridiculous and insulting” that paving the streets in his neighborhood was supposed to be a “trade-off” for the Northside Apartments.

Public safety should be everyone’s first concern, he said, suggesting that the city needs to do more to prevent speeding on Pine Street and support additional police protection. He said he and his neighbors did not feel safe when two men shot someone at the apartments earlier this year.

“None of us were even aware of what was later described as an attempted murder,” he said. “A resident of Sportsmens Estates had to show identification to get into his own home and had no idea what happened.”

Sandy Gravunder, a homeowner on Porcupine Lane, said she bought a lot in the Sportsmens Addition because she liked that area. She would like the city to develop more green space — perhaps with a pavilion or swimming pool — rather than build more apartments.

“We would really like a buffer between the apartments and the rest of the town here,” she said.

Pine Street resident Dr. Paul Writz said “secrecy is suspected” when the planning commission meets in closed session and there is no record of anyone from Abbyland being at the meeting. Like others, he questioned why the original plan for duplexes was not still in effect.

In the 28 years that his family has lived on Pine Street, he said there had been no felony crimes committed until the apartments were built, and now there have been two in just the last year.

“Of course, when you have high-density housing, you have potential for more interpersonal conflicts,” he said.

Writz said the first five apartments were “railroaded through” and now the city is again looking to cash in on the taxes from two more buildings.

“The impression is that the city is more concerned about TIF money than the safety of its citizens,” he said.

Former mayor Dale Rachu, who lives on the southwest part of city, said some of the concerns he was hearing from other residents seemed “a little bit off the wall.” Rachu said he would like to see more apartment buildings built, especially with the city’s biggest employer, Abbyland, continuing to grow.

“We obviously need more housing, more places for people to live,” he said.

Jason Graun, however, wondered who would want to build a house next to the apartments, with all of the “stabbings and shootings” that have occurred at the apartments.

“It would be morally irresponsible to vote yes on this,” he said.

Selenia Espino urged the commission to make their decision “based on facts and what’s best for the city,” with a focus on making Abbotsford “a better place for our children.”

Espino said her family was one of the first Hispanic families to come here in the early 1990s, and she believes opposition to the new apartments is rooted in racial tensions. She said she read a complaint about the apartments bringing in “more ELL kids” to the area, referring to English Language Learners.

“Unfortunately with diversity comes racism,” she said. “People are not going to be addressing racism directly but rather indirectly which is what I believe is happening in our city.”

Dennis Wesphal, a former city council member, took issue with the idea that the debate was about race.

“One thing that really gets my blood boiling is when the comment of racism comes up,” he said. “That shouldn’t even be in this discussion.”

Regardless of race, Westphal said all Abbotsford citizens should be working together for the betterment of the city. He said the apartments should have been built some place else, and the city really needs to finish its landscaping to improve the look of the new subdivision. “I wouldn’t want that in my backyard,” he said. “Put a buffer in between there.”

Jim Colby, a homeowner on Third Avenue, said opposition to the apartments was coming from all over the city, not just the people in his ward.

“I believe the city should do as a majority of taxpayers wish,” he said.

Traffic and noise have become an ongoing problem for longtime residents of that area, he said.

“Those original apartments never should have went up in that area, a quiet residential area,” he said. “I feel bad for the people on Pine Street who moved to that once quiet neighborhood.”

Shanna Hackel, who moved to her house on Third Avenue three years ago, said she and her husband picked the spot because it felt like being in the country, but with city services available. She said the experience of having police officers running through her yard has shattered her sense of security.

“I no longer feel safe. I’d never had to say that before,” she said. “I took a conceal carry class, and now I have a gun in my house.” Sharon Archambo said adding more apartments in that area would simply be creating more segregation. She wondered why the proposal was being “rushed through” and said local officials need to vote according to what the people of the city want.

“If we need apartment buildings, put them on the east end of town,” she said. “Put them where people don’t have so far to go to work.”

Abbyland, city officials speak

Daya DeVries, manager of the Northside Apartments and an employee of Abbyland Foods for 26 years, disputed some of the more negative things she’s heard about her tenants.

The families who live in the apartments are “grateful and hard-working,” she said, and many of them came there from horrible living conditions.

“Sometimes people just need a chance, and to know someone cares,” she said. “Eventually we hope to see them buy houses and become longterm members of the community.”

DeVries acknowledged that a few tenants have caused problems, but she said Abbyland has a “zero tolerance” policy for criminal activity. She said she has a good working relationship with local police, but as someone who lives at the apartments herself, she does not understand the level of fear expressed by neighboring residents.

“I do not see the constant crime some of your are saying it is,” she said.

DeVries said the five existing apartment buildings are full, and she still has a list of people looking for a place to live.

“Please do not deny 28 more families a better place to live,” she said.

Several police officers in attendance echoed what DeVries said about the actual crime rate at the apartments, and about the lack of adequate low-income housing elsewhere in the area.

Lt. Alex Bowman said Colby-Abby police do spend a lot of time at the apartments, but 80 percent of it is for “community relations,” and learning more about the people who live there.

Bowman noted that the suspects in last year’s stabbing and February’s shooting were all living in the area before the apartments were built, and had already been on the CAPD’s radar.

“They would have done it whether they were living there or not,” he said.

Bowman also addressed ongoing complaints about speeding in that area.

“A lot of people we stop for speeding are residents of Pine Street or the side streets,” he said. “It’s not just the people from the apartments that are breaking traffic laws through there.”

Police chief Jason Bauer said the CAPD does its best to “relocate” habitual criminals out of the area, but the number of officers continues to lag behind the local population growth.

“Any time you grow, you’re going to have to add services,” he said.

Patrick Leichtnam, the CAPD’s school resource officer, attested to the fact that a lot of families with kids are living in squalid conditions. Based on home visits he’s done recently, he described rotting floor boards and doors that don’t close properly.

“You wouldn’t even let your dog live in some of these places,” he said. “That’s how bad they are.”

Leichtnam said the city could fill four apartment buildings with families who living in trailers and other homes that need to be bulldozed. He noted that 26 students in the Abbotsford School District are currently listed as “homeless.”

“That should be unheard of in these small communities,” he said.

City administrator Dan Grady and DPW Craig Stuttgen also spoke about the city’s housing needs, and how tax incremental financing (TIF) provides the public infrastructure and incentives needed for developers to build.

The city is currently taking in $550,000 in annual TIF revenue because of developments that have already gone up, and that number is expected to increase to $800,000 per year by 2022.

Stuttgen said this money is needed to complete much-needed street work throughout the city.

“People are saying this about the dollar,” he said. “Absolutely, a lot of it is about the dollar.”

Utility operator Josh Soyk said the city’s water and sewer facilities have more than enough capacity to provide water and treat sewage from the new apartments. He also said that each building generates $5,000 in annual revenue for the sewer utility, which will help erase a deficit in the utility.

Commission, council vote

Mayor Lori Voss, a member of the planning commission who voted for the rezoning, said a lot of the bad things being said about the apartments do not match what she saw on a recent tour.

“It’s rumors,” she said. “It’s not true.”

Commissioner Gerry Anders also picked apart several of the concerns he’s heard from residents, though he ultimately voted against the rezoning and the developer’s agreement. He objected to lowering the price to $1 per lot for Abbyland, when the commission had approved $5,000 as the price.

“A lot of thought went into putting that thing together, and I really don’t like walking away from it,” he said.

Commissioner Marcia Hochhalter also objected to going against the commission’s original plan, which called for duplexes in the area now slated for apartments.

“Our recommendation was sound last May, and it’s sound today,” she said.

At the council meeting, most of the aldermen who spoke said they got positive or mixed feedback from constituents about the apartment proposal.

“Overwhelmingly, the people who came through my doors, without a question, were in favor of the apartments,” said Ald. Roger Weideman, referring to his business in Abbotsford.

Ald. Lori Huther said she went door to door in her ward and was surprised by the variety of answers she got when she asked about the apartments.

“It was really a split,” she said, noting that she ultimately voted in accordance with the majority of her constituents.

However, she also asked that the council discuss speeding issues and a green space plan at a future meeting.

Ald. Frankie Soto said not a single person visited him or called him to voice opposition to the Northside Apartments. He said he did receive negative comments from members of the Abby Community Forum Facebook group, but he was not happy with how they flooded him with phone calls.

“We’re going through a pandemic in our United States, and we’re fighting over two apartments? Get real!” he said.

Ald. Dennis Kramer, who lives in the Sportsmens Estates, said he heard a lot of valid concerns from the 25 to 30 of his constituents who attended a neighborhood meeting the Monday before.

“Nobody dislikes the apartments that I talked to,” he said. “Everybody dislikes the fact that they were put in our best residential district.”

TAKING PRECAUTIONS -Chairs in the city council chambers were spaced apart to allow for social distancing at last Thursday’s public hearing. Kathy Brodhagen, right, urges the planning commission and city council to keep the plan in place for duplexes instead of more apartments on Swampbuck Drive.STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN O’BRIEN

Darla Viegut

Selenia Espino

Craig Stuttgen

THE DECISION-MAKERS -Abbotsford Mayor Lori Voss, center, speaks about the need for more affordable housing in the city. At left is Ald. Jim Weix, and at right is city administrator Dan Grady. Attorney Courtney Graff of Medford, who was hired to handle TIF issues, is seated behind Mayor Voss. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN O’BRIEN