City approves Walmart conditional use permit

The Merrill City Plan Commission voted 3-2 Tuesday night to not approve a conditional use permit for a new Walmart super center. However, the City Council, meeting immediately after, voted to approve the permit on a 6-2 vote.
The granting of the conditional use permit allows Walmart to go forward with plans for the project. A developer’s agreement with the city will still need to be ironed out over the coming months.
Some Plan Commission members argued that not enough information was yet available for them to decide on the conditional use permit. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s (WisDOT) response to Walmart’s Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) is still forthcoming.
Rich Handrick of WisDOT said he had just finished reviewing the TIA, which covers Hwy. 64 and its intersections at Pine Ridge Avenue, I-39 and Hwy. 17. He said the WisDOT requirements for roadway and intersection improvements would be decided in the next few weeks.
“My next procedure is to assemble a list of recommendations and see what we are going to require of Walmart,” Handrick said. “Then we’ll have a really solid idea of what we’re going to need at Pine Ridge Avenue, the northbound offramps and the Hwy. 17 intersection.”
New traffic patterns and anticipated volume of traffic at Pine Ridge Avenue will require significant changes to the intersection, Handrick said.
“Our concern has been the addition of substantial westbound movement,” he said. “Before we dump a lot more traffic in it, it needs to be fixed.”
Not knowing what those intersections are going to look like was troubling to Plan Commission member James Koppelman.
“Business people want to know what that intersection is going to look like,” he said. “Those are reasonable questions.”
Koppelman urged the city to wait until those questions are answered.
“We don’t have our homework done yet,” he said. “I don’t see the urgency of this thing. In my opinion we should wait.”
Commission member Ken Maule also asked that the city hold off until the rest of the information is available.
“I think we still have the cart ahead of the horse,” he said. “I just don’t think we have addressed everything we should have before we pass this.”
Mayor Bill Bialecki told the commission that the city still needs to hammer out a developer’s agreement with Walmart, which can include any number of stipulations. The city and the company would both have to agree to the final document.
Council President Steve Hass asked commission members to bring their concerns to him to be considered in the developer’s agreement.
At the City Council meeting, a motion was made to approve the conditional use permit, despite the Plan Commission’s recommendation to the contrary.
Alderman Chris Malm argued that the council should respect the decision of the Plan Commission.
“It concerns me that we would ignore the wisdom of the Plan Commission at this point,” he said.
City Zoning Administrator Darrin Pagel said the city will have a say in the developer’s agreement.
“With completion of the conditional use permit, that part is done,” he said, “but the developer’s agreement is ongoing and will come back here for final approval.”
City Administrator David Johnson pointed out that the developer’s agreement is just that – an agreement.
“Walmart has to agree and the city has to agree,” he said. “We work until we do come to an agreement. We haven’t lost any leverage.”
Following the council’s vote, Bialecki said a lot of hard work has gone into the project thus far.
“A lot of people have put a lot of hours into arriving where we’re at tonight,” he said. “I see us moving forward and creating a great project for the city of Merrill.”

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