County board seeks more oversight on UW-Rock dorm site

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Thursday, November 21, 2013

JANESVILLE—After two meetings, more than two hours of discussion and several amendments, the Rock County Board of Supervisors voted Thursday to donate four acres of land to UW-Rock County for a dormitory.

Supervisors made it clear, however, that they weren't happy with the proposed location for the dormitory and the speed at which they were being asked to make a decision. They also made it plain that they wanted more input in the process.

Thursday's series of marathon meetings started with a joint session of the Rock County Board's general services and staff committees. At that meeting, the committees were asked to consider a resolution that would donate four acres of land to the Rock Residential Foundation, a yet-unformed offshoot of the UW-Rock County Foundation.

The proposed section of land would back up to the property lines of homes on Garden Drive. The original plans called for the two-story dorm and parking lot to be built 25 feet from the homes' property lines. After a meeting with neighborhood residents, the plan was altered, adding parking spaces and moving the project 60 to 65 feet from property lines.

“We heard the residents loud and clear,” UW-Rock County Dean Carmen Wilson said.

But committee members expressed concerns about the dorm's location. Supervisors Hank Brill and Philip Owens, asked why the project couldn't be moved even farther to west to accommodate the concerns of area residents.

UW-Foundation Executive Director Cindy Zaharias said that moving the project farther west was cost prohibitive, as it would require extending utility lines and the access road.

Zaharias added that both the foundation and the university wanted to work with residents, and had already taken some of their concerns into account by adding extra parking.

She compared the debate and its participants to the “Little House on the Prairie” community: There will be a large group of people who have concerns, but will be willing to listen to proposals.

“But then there are the Harriet Olesons, who want this area to remain undeveloped,” Zaharias said.

Harriet Oleson was a character on the “Little House on the Prairie” television show who was perpetually disdainful or unhappy.

A move was made to table the resolution to donate the land, meaning it would not advance to the county board, but it failed.

It was important for the resolution to pass so that UW-Rock County officials could take the information to a UW Board of Regents meeting Dec. 5. That would allow officials to break ground and have the dorm ready for occupancy next fall.

At the full county board meeting following the committee meeting, residents from Garden Drive told the board they were supportive of education, but didn't like the proposed location.

Nick Decker, 2318 Garden Drive, said he first heard details about the proposed location at a Wednesday meeting.

He described himself as being a “little shell shocked” the proposal.

“I kind of felt like we were left in the dark until the last minute,” Decker said.

He presented a petition in opposition to the location signed by 33 neighborhood residents.

Laurie Farris, of 2310 Garden Drive, said that when she and her husband, Kevin Farris, moved into their house 18 years ago, they knew there would eventually be a building behind them, they just thought it would be closer to the college.

Wilson presented the supervisors with an overview of the project and its potential benefits to the community. The dormitory could bring in foreign students, both to UW-Rock County and to the Janesville School District. A dorm at UW-Richland Center was bringing in students from all over the world. Each of those students brought an estimated $20,000 to the local economy.

In addition, the dorm would make UW-Rock County a more popular choice with students, helping to sustain the college into the future.

Wilson and Zaharias were peppered with questions by board members about the site. Zaharias explained that soil borings on a different part of the campus showed the presence of concrete, making it unusable. Another site was being reserved for the expansion of the Wells Cultural Center, and yet another was already in use as a soccer field.

Zaharias explained that the foundation had to consider UW-Rock County's long-range plans, and it was operating within a limited budget. Sites that were too expensive would take the project off the table altogether.

Supervisor Larry Wiedenfeld asked why the proposal had to be put through at “warp speed.”

Wilson explained that school officials hoped to have the dorm ready for occupancy in fall 2014. Opening it later, say January 2015, wouldn't make sense, as it was in the middle of the school year.

Supervisors amended the original resolution so they could donate the land for the project without specifying where the dormitory would be located. In addition, the plans would have to be approved by the general services committee and the full county board.

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