SOMERSET -- Inner tube rental businesses will be prohibited from using Village Park as a point of entry or exit to or from the Apple River next season.
Village Board trustees unanimously approved the contentious new ordinance Tuesday night, Aug. 20, before a packed hall of opponents, bringing a long-running feud to a new head.
The lengthy Ordinance 2019-A-653 sites a long list of grievances the village has been discussing at public meetings for more than a year now. Some include, public intoxication, substance abuse issues, public nudity, littering, vandalism -- all issues the village claims make the community less desirable to potential homeowners and businesses.
The long running feud came to a head last week when trustees were greeted by a hall packed with residents angered by what they perceived to be a direct attempt by the Village Board to shutdown the tubing industry and with it, its economic impact on downtown businesses.
An email sent out to community members by the Somerset Chamber of Commerce earlier that day predicted the ordinance would effectively lead to “the elimination of the tubing industry in Somerset.”
Somerset currently has four tubing businesses. Two of those businesses would be affected by the ordinance.
The combative relationship between the tubing industry in Somerset and the Village Board goes back decades.
LISTEN: Residents react to controversial Somerset ordinance
There have been formal and informal agreements over the years to try to address the issues, most recently a three-page proposal compiled by members of the Apple River Floating Industry was handed over to Board President John Melvin by River’s Edge owner Steve Kaufman last May.
In September 2018, trustees contracted with MSA Professional Services to develop a master park plan. The planning process collected data from an online park survey to which 239 residents responded, has public engagement sessions on Nov. 15 and Dec. 13, 2018, and utilized results from the River+Roads community survey and the Village’s revised Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan to redevelop Village Park. The final plan was revealed June 18, 2019.
Trustee Bartt Palmer presided over Tuesday nights board meeting in the absence of President John Melvin.
Cherie Link speaking on behalf of the Somerset Chamber of Commerce began the public comment period with a warning.
“While it may not be the intent of the Village Board to end tubing in the community, the proposed closing of Village Park to tubers may become the catalyst for its end, potentially cause financial hardship for other businesses who benefit either directly or indirectly from the tubing industry as a large part of our community’s tourism base,” Link said.
Chamber Director Beckah Whitlock asked the board to table any vote on the amendment and to further clarify the wording of the amendment. She recommended that the board “prioritize the revitalization and economic development of the downtown Somerset area and the creation of quality housing for families looking to relocate to the Somerset area above the Village Park Renovation Plan.”
Mike Kappers, owner of the Apple River Hideaway campground and tubing business, one of two businesses that would be affected by the ordinance, placed the blame for the unfair treatment of his business on what he believes to be corruption of certain village officials. He suggested that their absence from the meeting proved their complicity. He encouraged the remaining officials to meet with campground owners, staff, business owners and customers before making up their minds.
“I’m asking you tonight to not get lead down the wrong path. Let the community dictate when the tubing gets shut down. Do not rubber stamp this ordinance change without doing your due diligence. You owe it to your community and to these families,” Kappers said.
Another resident was concerned about how the loss of tax revenue, if tubing businesses and other businesses closed, would impact his personal property taxes in light of the school referendum recently passed.
Billy Raleigh, previous owner of River’s Edge the other tubing business that would be affected directly by the new ordinance, expressed his frustration and confusion with the new amendment.
“I really don’t know what to say. In reading the comments from the Village and accusations of promoting offensive behavior and a lewd crowd, it’s just actually an insult to me, my family, my legacy. It’s irresponsible. It’s just wrong. It would be in the best interest of everyone that we continue to have collaborative conversations as opposed to just ending this so quickly really giving us very little time to try to enact change in this community,” Raleigh said.
Steve Kaufman, the current owner of River’s Edge asked, “How many of the people in this room, by raise of hands, are in favor of this ordinance change?” No hands went up. How many are against the change of this ordinance?” A majority raised their hands.
Chamber Board of Directors member Andrea Jorgensen shared information about economic benefits related to tourism.
“Last night we did have a board meeting and amongst the four tubing businesses in town, the estimate was 80,000 visitors are coming to Somerset to go tubing. The average in the state of Wisconsin for tourism spending per day is $82 per person," she said. That' $6,560,000. "Can you afford to lose that? And it’s not just the tubing industries we’re talking about here. Tubers are supporting your restaurants, they’re buying gas, they’re stopping at your bars. That’s a lot of money."
Trustee Kim Putz responded to the public comments.
“The majority of the Village’s economic funds are generated from the businesses in our business park. The top 10 businesses employ over 1,000 workers and pay in excess of $450,000 in real estate taxes per year. If tubing actually generated $4 million to $6 million to our businesses, then why do we have a downtown that is struggling to attract new businesses? The email that was circulated earlier today was an attempt to steer individuals away from the actual tubing issues. We’ve discussed those at several meetings previous to this one,” Putz said. “Improving the community’s image and reputation will improve the economics and businesses in Somerset as it becomes more desirable for all people.”
The amended ordinance passed and is scheduled to take effect Oct. 1, 2019.