The Mess in Franklin: Residents Confront the Mayor

The citizen comments at a hearing before the Franklin Common Council on March 1 had a rehearsed quality. Indeed, Mayor Steve Olson had heard it all before. Despite fierce resident opposition, the council voted 3-3 to approve a Special Use Permit for the development of a 30-acre parcel adjacent to Ryan Meadows subdivision. The mayor provided the tiebreaker vote. What made this vote particularly stunning to many city residents was the fact that the applicant, Strauss Brands, had already withdrawn and announced plans to sell the land.

At a Common Council meeting last November, more than 200 Franklin residents had spoken out against the plan to put a cattle slaughterhouse next to a residential subdivision, a plan many Franklin residents say defies common sense. Back then, the council had also voted to approve the SUP, despite the vocal opposition of the people who would be most affected by the proposed slaughterhouse. But after a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge decided that Franklin residents had been denied their right to due process, what Mayor Steve Olson referred to as a “do-over” vote was scheduled, despite the fact that Strauss Brands had announced it was withdrawing its application to build a second facility on the land.

The new hearing and “do-over” vote on March 1, broadcast live on Franklin’s YouTube channel, did nothing to appease the angry residents of Franklin.

“Mayor, you really botched this,” one resident said.

“You build industrial next to industrial,” said another resident. “You don’t say, ‘I’m going to build a slaughterhouse next to . . . $600,000 homes!’ You don’t build a slaughterhouse next to residential!”

“You’re backing away from quality of life in Franklin,” said a third resident. Franklin’s city motto is “Celebrating Quality of Life.” But observing the activities of its municipal leadership, you might conclude that Franklin’s motto is ironic at best.

Dave Sorensen, executive director of Franklin Community Advocates, an organization founded because of citizens’ frustration with their municipal politicians, stepped forward to report on an economic impact study on home values in proximity to a slaughterhouse. The group paid $25,000 for the study, conducted by consulting firm Cohn Reznick.

“What we’ve learned so far is that property values do decrease based on proximity to a slaughterhouse. The closer you are, the greater the drop in property values,” said Sorensen. Two local realtors had already expressed their concerns about the slaughterhouse’s potential impact on property values.

But Mayor Steve Olson seemed unmoved; he’d been here before, and his position on the slaughterhouse plan hadn’t changed, even though the city no longer has an applicant to build on the land.

When a man with a shaggy hipster beard stepped up to the microphone, an answer seemed to emerge about why the mayor and the council were acting with such apparent recklessness.

Tom Benning, the bearded man at the mic, addressed the mayor directly. “Not once have you told people . . . why you want this particular business and why you are pressing for it so desperately. Be honest. You want this business because of the water usage.

“You have a very expensive sewer in the ground that doesn’t work because it has no flow. You and the previous mayor pushed for it. Now you’re trying to fix it. You’re virtually asking us that live around there to be sacrificial lambs to cover your own backside. You’re willing to do cartwheels down Hwy 36 for a slaughterhouse. [But a slaughterhouse] doesn’t belong next to a brand new subdivision of $500,000 homes. Please explain to the people of Franklin where this is coming from. Nobody is against Strauss . . . but nobody could be that dense to think that [a slaughterhouse] belongs next to a subdivision. It belongs in an industrial area next to an Interstate or out on the plains of Nebraska.” (Strauss initially hoped to locate in the Franklin Industrial Park, on the other side of town, with its own ramp off I-94.)

A section of sewer system, the Ryan Creek Interceptor, serves the disputed area in Franklin as well as parts of Muskego. The mighty Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, 423 square miles of pipe covering all or part of six watersheds, will assume ownership and management of the RCI in 2031. “We cannot build a regional sewer system and pay for it unless it services more than one community. Franklin and Muskego lobbied us for this sewer,” said Bill Graffin, public information manager for MMSD.

Approved in 2010 and completed in 2013, the Interceptor is comprised of 5 miles of 48-inch pipe. “We call them 4-foot pipes,” said Benning, a heavy-equipment operator by trade, who has worked on projects like the RCI. “You need a lot of flow for a pipe that big.”

So had Graffin heard anything about “low flow” in those 4-foot pipes? “There have been some odor issues that are the result of low flows,” Graffin admitted.

Odor issues? The only odor issues discussed at the Franklin Common Council hearing on March 1 were presumed – the “stink” and “smell” that would be emitted by the proposed slaughterhouse. No one had said anything about existing odor issues.

But when I tracked down Benning, he was able to clarify. “A pipe that large has to service a very populated area,” Benning said. But when “they ran this pipe,” it was “zigzagging through cornfields,” he said. And right into Tom Benning’s neighborhood. Benning and his neighbors on Old Ryan Road were connected to the RCI. “I’m hooked up to it at the far west end,” Benning said.

Benning and other residents on the street soon noticed intensely noxious odors in their homes. “It’s not slight,” he said. “It’s quite horrific.” He said that hydrogen sulfide, a landfill waste product, runs through the pipe – with very little water to dilute it – and creates a noxious odor. Benning believes the strong chemical odor is the result of waste from a Muskego landfill, exacerbated by “low flow.”

The city temporarily solved the problem by shutting off the valves on pipe leading to the homes, but residents were still charged fees for the sewer. Benning believes that Franklin “misused a federal grant” to build the sewer.

Franklin received a $27 million Clean Water Grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to build the RCI. The EPA grants are intended to help communities that have trouble supplying clean water to residents. The EPA guidelines specifically say the grants cannot be used to create new development.

According to FCA’s Sorensen, the city’s political leadership “thought the best way to solve Franklin’s on-going, $27 million RCI problem was to create an unqualified TIF to go toward funding additional infrastructure. Even worse, the money [was] earmarked for an unnecessary third industrial park that would house a giant slaughterhouse in the midst of a residential area, above two watersheds [of the Root and Pike River], and at the furthest point in Franklin from the Interstate.”

The money a municipality invests in TIF (tax incremental financing) is repaid over time through taxes levied on the businesses who locate in the district. TIF funds were initially intended to draw businesses to blighted urban areas, but increasingly, in communities like Franklin, they’ve been used to attract business to suburban industrial parks. The municipality builds out the infrastructure to attract the businesses who will ideally provide tax revenue to fatten the city’s coffers. However, paying back the debt can take up to twenty years. If the business doesn’t survive or doesn’t produce the necessary level of revenue or the property loses value, the taxpayers must pay back the bond issues that were used to pay for the water, sewer, and roads.

However, because of its investment in a malfunctioning sewage system and in TID6, an industrial park in an awkward location where its flagship business no longer wishes to locate, Franklin is now “on the hook for millions,” Tom Benning says.

In fact, Tom Benning could well be correct when he claims that Mayor Olson is “desperate” to get a large facility with a high volume of water usage onto that plot of land in TID6. The current Strauss facility is the largest single water user in Franklin. Had Strauss decided to go ahead with the new plant, its water consumption would have been estimated at 15 million gallons of water per quarter, according to Sorensen.

Still, Sorensen is optimistic about the city’s future. He believes that change is coming to Franklin. In the municipal elections held on April 5, neither Marcelino Rivera nor Deb Davis prevailed in their races against incumbent Franklin aldermen. But Sorensen emphasizes that these two candidates, “new to politics, who were focused on making changes in terms of a more transparent and voter-centric Franklin government, . . . lost by a combined total of only 68 votes in a city of 36,000+ residents.” Sorensen added, “Not bad for a first try by two newcomers, going up against an old guard that has spent the last two decades creating a fiefdom independent from its constituents.”

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