When a few developers planned to build a set of new homes on speculation this summer—spacious custom homes with 3,000-square-foot floor plans and $400,000-plus price tags—some local builders might have had questions.
Would buyers come in the midst of a pandemic that had shut down big swaths of commerce and frozen segments of the local and national economy for weeks?
That question was answered quickly.
State data shows that the number of permits for new single-family housing starts jumped by more than 50% this year in Rock County. In some spots—including Janesville and the Lake Koshkonong area—homebuilding activity more than doubled compared to the last few years.
4BZ Carpenters owner Kevin Blaser was working this week to finish siding a 2,700-square-foot custom house on Castlemoor Drive on the city’s northeast side. He said the new home—initially planned as a speculation house—sold in October within a week of being listed. Its foundation hadn’t even been poured yet.
“Three people had a bidding war over this house. It sold and sold in a week,” Blaser said. “Actually, I think it was less than that. It took maybe five or six days.”
The price: $430,000.
The Seattle-based buyers were looking to move closer to family and live in a more affordable area of the country. For the price they paid, they got walk-in closets, custom granite countertops and hardwood floors, and a spacious, fully built-out basement.
Continued demand for new housing in Rock County has fueled a construction boom. Hundreds of new apartment units have been built in Janesville this year, and single-family housing starts haven’t exactly taken a back seat, data shows.
The state Department of Safety and Professional Services, which tracks local and countywide permits for new housing starts, says builders have pulled 350 permits to build new single-family homes in Rock County in 2020.
The data shows that 160 of those permits were for homes in Janesville—a whopping 227% jump over housing starts last year.
About 75 more permits were issued this year for homes in the town of Fulton. Building houses in the rolling hills west of Lake Koshkonong has continued to be popular with Madison-area residents who want upsized new digs for a lower price than they might pay in Dane County, local analysts say.
Janesville Economic Development Director Gale Price said the city’s permit office counts 103 permits for single-family and duplex housing starts on file through December. That’s a lower number than the state recorded but still a double-down on building compared to the last few years.
Price said local economic development officials believe that buyers’ hunger for new homes and “ridiculously low” mortgage interest rates have created a wave of renewed interest in homebuilding.
Construction of new homes—and the forces behind it—seem to have overridden the dampening effect that COVID-19 has had on other parts of the economy.
Price said planning department officials tell him the number of development plat plans filed with the city hasn’t been this big since before the Great Recession and housing crash in 2008.
Many of those new developments are going on northeast-side property earmarked for housing for more than a decade—including some swaths of land where earlier developments stagnated during the Great Recession.
Meanwhile, average lot costs have begun tipping upward, with average prices near $50,000 per lot in some areas of the city.
“I can tell you it’s the hottest market we’ve seen since before the GM assembly plant closed,” Price said.
“It’s representative of the greater economy here in Rock County. There’s jobs to be had here. Look at how quickly we found lower unemployment after safer-at-home was lifted. That’s a nice inclination to have at the end of a rough year laden with a wildfire pandemic, political uncertainty, and shutdowns of businesses and public school buildings.”
Local builders say they’re feeling the same confidence, although Price and builders both say that prices for materials—a major factor in the cost of a new home—are a wild card.
Blaser said he has seen wild swings in the cost of lumber, with prices for wood sheeting and framing materials sometimes almost double. That’s in part because lumber mills nationwide endured shutdowns earlier this year, and they’ve been slow to ramp back up to meet the emerging demand for new homes and home improvement projects.
Price said that is the one factor that could dampen housing starts in upcoming months—particularly if developers can’t do projects at a price that fits the market demand or allows them to make a profit.
“We know lumber has gone up 20% since September. In the past, that’s the kind of stuff that throws people off. If it wasn’t for the low interest rates, that (material costs) would be problematic,” Price said.
Meanwhile, Blaser said some builders are making do in a long, busy season with a labor shortfall that has been a challenge the past few years and hasn’t eased during the pandemic.
Price said it is hard to predict whether the current building wave has crested. But based on a bunch of new permits that filtered in late this year, plus potential local industrial developments on the horizon, it’s unlikely the current trend will slow right away.
“I have no reason not to believe it’s going to continue forward,” he said, “because the demand and the activity has just continued to march forward in the face of this pandemic.”
UW-Whitewater academic programs could be cut under a budget review now underway, slashing course offerings and harming the local economy, the UW-Whitewater Faculty Senate said in a statement this week.
Chancellor Dwight Watson said Thursday that the senate’s estimate of up to 40% of academic programs being identified for cuts is “woefully inaccurate.”
Tracy Hawkins, chairwoman of the faculty senate, told The Gazette that faculty members fear a repeat of what happened at UW-Stevens Point in 2018, when the chancellor proposed cutting up to 13 degree programs, a plan that was later dropped, or in 2017 at UW-Superior, when 25 programs were suspended.
The dispute at UW-W is over who has the authority to cut academic programs. Hawkins said the tradition is that the faculty decides what courses are offered because they are the experts in their disciplines.
Watson says he wants the faculty’s help in identifying budget savings.
“I want the faculty to do their own deep dive in looking at the programs and giving us recommendations around what they feel that they should do,” Watson said.
But the senate wants to make the final decisions, Watson said, adding: “Well, that’s not really their purview. …
“We give the faculty a lot of autonomy, but when it comes to the budgetary decisions, I need to make the final decision, and the statute says that you work in consultation with the faculty, but our faculty believes that ‘in consultation’ means that they have complete ownership,” Watson said.
Watson issued a statement Thursday, saying he values the UW System practice of “shared governance,” which gives faculty a voice in such decisions, but the buck stops at his desk.
“As chancellor, it is ultimately my responsibility to make the final decisions that will impact the long-term future of UW-Whitewater,” Watson wrote.
“I would not consciously do anything that would harm the growth potential of this university or would have adverse effects on the community or region,” Watson stated.
The senate announced it is calling off a compromise on the issue that it had reached with the university administration because of a statement Watson delivered to the senate Dec. 8, saying he would make the final budget decisions.
The compromise called for faculty to collect budget information from academic programs to be used in the program review.
Watson said the senate wanted each academic program to set up its own criteria for judging whether it is succeeding or not, which is almost like letting students set up the criteria for their grades.
The senate also rejected categorizing programs as doing very well, satisfactory, so-so or unsatisfactory, Watson said.
“We want more objective rather than subjective metrics,” Watson said.
A draft of Watson’s “program-optimization” process calls for each program to turn in its information by Feb. 1, a final report to be issued in May-June and decisions made in the fall.
“The Faculty Senate opposes any hasty decisions that would have long-term and widespread impacts, instead opting for sacrifices that can get UW-Whitewater through this difficult time while protecting its ability to be successful for decades to come,” according to the senate statement.
Watson said the process has not been hasty and that final decisions will not take effect until the 2022-23 school year.
Hawkins said faculty should not be asked to conduct studies of programs at a time when they are overworked and dealing with the unusual stresses caused by the pandemic.
“The return to stability is already on the horizon: COVID-19 vaccines are becoming available; applications for fall 2021 are up, and universities will be in high demand as workers seek new skills in response to the changes caused by a year of remote business,” according to the senate statement.
The review process could lead to layoffs of professors, Watson said, adding that the university is already trying to fix its budget shortfall by not filling open positions and offering retirement bonuses of up to 35% of base salary to certain faculty members.
Watson said he doesn’t know what the result of the review process will be, but he said some underperforming programs might be kept if it can be shown that changes—to include spending an extra $30,000, for example—could increase enrollments.
The shortfalls are $5.3 million this school year and $17.3 million next year, Watson said.
Hawkins said Taryn Carothers, vice chancellor for administrative affairs, had already come up with a plan for addressing budget shortfalls, so no programs need to be cut.
Hawkins said the faculty has already voted to give up most professional-development money and stipends for summer classes and is working on recruiting students and lobbying legislators.
The faculty senate plans to meet from 2 to 5 p.m. Feb. 2 to discuss “institutional direction.”
UW System President Tommy Thompson was invited to attend the meeting.
Hawkins said the meeting will include discussion of which budget-fixing steps the faculty could study instead of working on the budget information the chancellor requested.
However, “We’re hopeful we’re going to be able to come to understand each other’s perspectives and address this together, but we just need to be at the decision-making table,” Hawkins said.
This story was modified Dec. 22, 2020, to reflect the following correction:
Because of incorrect information supplied by UW-Whitewater, a story on Page 1A n Friday gave an incorrect figure for the university’s estimated budget shortfall for the 2021-22 school year.
The correct figure is $17.3 million.
Ruth Mae Alderson
Patricia Ann (Smith) “Pat” Bosshart
Warren Lester Bull
James F. Carter
Terry Hawley Choate
David Raymond Hess
James O. Jenkins
Harold F. Kopplin
Donald D. “Don” Pfaff
Chad A. Robers
Richard J. “Dick” Roherty
Betty Mae (Farrar) Sanders
Henry F. Seward
With the annexation of 115 acres from the town of Milton and approval of a tax increment finance agreement, Clasen Quality Chocolate moved closer to building a 390,000-square-foot facility in Milton.
The Milton City Council took several actions Thursday, including passing an ordinance to annex the land.
Clasen intends to buy the land from private owners to create a 169-acre site in Crossroads Business Park on the city’s east side.
The company specializes in chocolate and confectionery coatings and has facilities in Middleton and Watertown and corporate offices in Madison. In its first phase of development in Milton, Clasen plans to build a manufacturing and distribution facility just north of Putman Parkway by the end of 2022.
City Administrator Al Hulick said the number of new jobs could increase from at least 50 to “hundreds” in subsequent development phases, which are under consideration but do not yet have dates.
“They’re talking about the facility tripling in size over their subsequent phases and their number of employees to quadruple or more,” he said.
The company has committed to create a projected taxable value of no less than $29 million by the time phase one is finished.
“This is a ‘pay-go’ TIF development agreement,” Hulick said. “As increment, or as taxes are generated from the creation of that project, the city will provide an incentive close to that increase in value. It actually works out to be about 85% of the value they create they would receive.”
The total incentive is $5.387 million over 12 years or whenever Clasen’s projected “increment”—increased property taxes generated by private development—reaches the total incentive amount, whichever comes first.
“It is to their advantage to create a pay value higher than what they are projecting so they can recoup their incentive quicker,” Hulick said.
As part of the agreement, Clasen agrees to buy 9.1 acres from the city, extend Putnam Parkway to the entrance of the facility site and extend a rail line about 3,500 linear feet from west of Penn Color to the site.
The city, in turn, agrees to sell the 9.1-acre parcel to the company, a deal that likely will close early next year. Other land is being acquired from private landholders.
For the annexed land, the city will pay the town a total of $474.15 over five years. The amount is based on what the town levied in taxes, and the town has filed no objection to the annexation. The petitions were submitted by the William R. and Jacqueline F. McNall Revocable Trust, which owns 64.76 acres, and the Van Horn Living Trust, which owns 50 acres.
With the annexation, the city now looks to finalize the creation of TIF District 11. The Joint Review Board is expected to consider creating TIF District 11 and amending TIF District 6 today.
Hulick said the city and Clasen are working with the Office of the Commissioner of Railroads, Watco Companies, Wisconsin and Southern Railroad, and the state on the construction of a rail spur.
The company intends to start construction on the spur, Putnam Parkway and the facility as soon as possible in 2021, Hulick said.
Rock County Public Health Officer Marie-Noel Sandoval will retire early next year amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
County Administrator Josh Smith was notified of Sandoval’s plan Nov. 11. Her last day will be Jan. 4, but she will remain on the county’s payroll until her vacation hours are exhausted Feb. 15, according to Sandoval’s letter to Smith.
Sandoval is the county’s top health official who has authority to issue health orders, an authority that has been questioned by politicians and the public this year across the country.
Sandoval said she had planned to retire “at a certain age” since the beginning of her career. She said she had intended to retire in spring 2020 but stayed on to help lead her team through the pandemic.
There is a lot yet unknown about how the pandemic will play out, Sandoval said, but she is confident she is leaving her team well equipped to carry out a successful response.
This year has been challenging, Sandoval said, and she is disappointed in how public health has become politicized and polarized. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The health department is supported by its board of health and county administration, which also makes Sandoval confident in her departure, she said.
The coronavirus pandemic has exhausted public health resources across the country, and Rock County is no exception.
Sandoval’s departure will come as the county and nation try to get enough people vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, a feat health officials say likely won’t happen until summer 2021 at the earliest.
The county will stop accepting applications for Sandoval’s position today and will begin reviewing applications after that, though the process might be delayed because of the holidays, Smith said.
Smith said he hopes to have Sandoval’s position filled sometime in February.
Assistant Director Michelle Bailey will assume Sandoval’s duties until a permanent health officer is hired, Smith said.
Responding to the pandemic has been a team effort, Smith said, and he is not worried that the community will be affected by Sandoval’s absence.
It is difficult to know what the candidate pool for the new health officer will look like given the pandemic, Smith said.
At least 181 state and local public health leaders in 38 states have resigned, retired or been fired since April 1, according to an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News.
It is thought to be the largest exodus of public health leaders in American history. An untold number of lower-level staffers have also left, according to the AP.
Sandoval said she is most proud of how the health department has modernized during her five years in Rock County.
She hopes county leaders will continue to tackle some of the county’s leading public health issues apart from the pandemic: health disparities, obesity and sexually transmitted infections.
As she prepares to retire, Sandoval wanted to remind residents again how important it is to wear masks, stay home, socially distance and practice good hand hygiene.
“Please be safe. COVID is still with us,” Sandoval said.