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GATED COMMUNITY?: Landowner questions village’s effective ban on affordable housing

A rendering showing plans for the proposed Farm at River Hills residential project, which is to be built in the village of River Hills in Milwaukee County. The landowner who had bought land for the project is suing the village after alleging local zoning policies place an effective ban on the construction of affordable housing. (Rendering courtesy of HGA)

A rendering shows plans for the proposed Farm at River Hills residential project, which is to be built in the village of River Hills in Milwaukee County. The landowner who had bought land for the project is suing the village after alleging local zoning policies place an effective ban on the construction of affordable housing. (Rendering courtesy of HGA)

A landowner is suing the affluent Milwaukee suburb of River Hills, arguing the village’s restrictive housing policies have led to the rejection of a proposed apartment development and violations of state and federal law.

The property at the heart of the dispute is a 55-acre tract of land owned by the development firm Randle River Hills, which has sought since 2014 to develop the family-owned land into a mixed-use apartment complex. Residents and village officials, however, have met the plan with hostility, leading a Milwaukee developer to walk away from the deal and costing Randle River Hills nearly $3 million.

The lawsuit argues the village’s strict zoning rules have long blocked apartment developments in River Hills. The village now has no apartments within its limit and often requires single-family houses to be built on five-acre plots of land. The suit argues this effective ban on housing for low- and middle-income residents runs afoul of federal law and Wisconsin’s Smart Growth Law, which requires local governments to plan for housing that serves the needs of people both with all levels of income and with special needs.

“River Hills openly brags that it can exploit the resources of Milwaukee and other surrounding communities, but keeps its own community walled off from any outsiders that would affect the ‘tranquility’ and ‘security’ of River Hills by its restrictive zoning,” according to the suit.

An attorney for Randle didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

The site of the would-be development is on land long owned by the Eder family, which has used it for farming. In 2014, however, the Eder family began exploring a development on the site and enlisted the Milwaukee developer Mandel Group to draw up a plan.

The project, named the Farm at River Hills, called for a mixed-use housing complex that would have housing for “empty-nesters,” housing for seniors and an organic farm. The project was initially to have 400 units and cost about $75 million.

But as Mandel began working on the plan in earnest in late 2014, local officials and residents met it with “open hostility,” according to the suit. The project required a zoning change.

The suit alleges that River Hills’ zoning permits single-family houses to be built only on five-acre parcels, allowing relatively few exceptions for one- or two-acre parcels. What’s more, no apartments of “any kind” are allowed in the village, according to the suit. The median home price in River Hills is more than $600,000, significantly higher than Milwaukee County’s median home price of $170,000.

The developer made various changes to the plan, reducing its population density by half and the number of units in the complex by two-thirds. It ultimately preserved more than 90% of the site for public use and completely removed a housing plan meant to provide care for seniors.

Despite these accommodations, local officials and residents remained opposed to the plan. Some village officials said the project had no chance of passing because it violated the village’s 2009 comprehensive plan, which lists the village’s development priorities. According to a 1999 state law commonly known as Wisconsin’s Smart Growth law, every municipality in the state is required to draw up a comprehensive plan.

The village’s plan, however, has no provisions that would allow for such housing. The lawsuit contends that omission was no accident. Although the village hired a consultant that added such protections to a draft of its master plan, River Hills Village Attorney William Dineen later stripped them out. Village officials in 2009 ultimately approved a comprehensive plan making no mention of affordable or special-needs housing. The village revisited the plan again this fall and approved it without substantive changes. Dineen didn’t return a message seeking comment by press time.

The lawsuit also contends that River Hills’ housing policies effectively keep out minorities and thus violate the federal Fair Housing Act.

“River Hills has (twice) knowingly enacted plans in violation of Wisconsin law to further its unlawful vision for the village — to exploit the resources of the surrounding communities while specifically and intentionally excluding housing for people that lack the wealth to live in their exclusive enclave, or who are elderly, or have special needs,” according to the suit.

Mandel Group ultimately introduced plans for its Farm at River Hills project in July 2018 without including provisions for senior housing. The proposal was met with resistance from local officials and residents, who drew up yard signs reading “save River Hills.”

Mandel responded by dropping the proposal after a village board meeting held at Cardinal Stritch University. That left Randle River Hills, the landowner, out nearly $3 million, an amount Mandel had agreed to pay had the deal earned approval.

Randle River Hills tried to reintroduce the project in May, but local officials again blocked it. Village trustees placed the project on its full meeting agenda — instead of putting it before the plan commission, which the suit argues is required — and unanimously voted it down. The suit asks a judge to overturn the board’s policies and order damages.

“The entire zoning scheme of River Hills must be declared illegal and void,” according to the suit.

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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