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Lots and lots of talk about lots

By Staff | Mar 19, 2017

Less than a month after rejecting a $1,000 bid for an unused lot in town, the Winnebago City Council may be overhauling its entire system of selling and overseeing vacant properties in an effort to facilitate housing growth and stifle concerns of steep bidding requirements.

The city has long accepted offers for unused lots, establishing bidding deadlines for for-sale spaces in Winnebago. But recent disagreements by city officials regarding the value of certain lots prompted a Tuesday proposal from councilman Rick Johnson one that not only would keep all vacant lots on the market 24/7 but would implement a rebate process for potential reimbursement of home builders.

At the City Council’s Feb. 14 meeting, Johnson led opposition to the $1,000 offer, which was the only bid received for a 435 First Ave. NW lot, where city administrator Chris Ziegler said the potential buyer had hoped to “move in a rambler-style home.” Claiming the offer paled in comparison to previous city-lot sales, Johnson motioned to reject the $1,000 proposal and reopen bidding only for offers of at least $4,500.

Councilman Scott Robertson was the only one to oppose Johnson’s pursuit of a bigger bid, and when Ziegler informed the council Tuesday that no follow-up offers had been made since February, he reiterated that Winnebago’s focus should be on aiding any kind of growth regardless of lot-sale preferences.

“Do we want Winnebago moving forward?” Robertson asked. “I know Councilman Johnson was talking about setting a precedent, but I don’t believe we should pick and choose what people do. That lot is worth $1,000 because that’s what was offered. What happened years ago, that ship has sailed.”

Hence the new proposal from Johnson.

“I’ve had a month to think about this, too,” he said. “What if we put a city-lots policy in place to have the sitting council put a cost on them at all times?”

On top of making all vacant city lots always available for purchase, Johnson said a rebate-type program could be used to incentivize the construction or relocation of houses on lots. The program, he explained, would reimburse buyers with either a fraction or the entire cost of city lots in the event those buyers meet building requirements.

“If they pay $4,000 for the lot but they put up a house and don’t sit on an empty lot for a year,” Johnson said, “then they could get their $4,000 back.”

The council agreed that such a rebate system would require a great deal of planning. After all, some potential buyers might want to obtain a lot for something other than a house. And the council would have to find a way to determine and distinguish appropriate prices for available lots.

Even city attorney David Frundt was not positive on the feasibility of certain aspects of the plan when the council inquired about the possibility of bringing Johnson’s proposal to life.

“I have to admit, I’ve never been asked that question before,” Frundt said of the rebate idea.

But the council, and even Robertson, agreed it would be worth exploring. Then, even if the city positioned itself to reimburse part or all of lot payments, it could encourage the transition of properties back into the tax base.

“The rebate would probably be for single-family, residential households, not commercial,” Johnson said. “But it gets things back into the tax rolls.”

Requesting that Frundt research the idea, the council concluded the proposed system could ultimately foster citywide growth, not to mention spark some nostalgic community appreciation.

“I have people randomly come up to me all the time,” Ziegler said, “and they say, ‘Do you remember years ago when Winnebago just took open lots and gave them out for free? That was the best thing Winnebago has ever done.'”

Perhaps, if things go as planned, the city could soon have its own rendition of the apparent lots giveaway plan.

“Maybe we’d make the news again in a positive light,” Johnson said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the City Council also:

Inquired about the possibility of a new United Hospital District clinic in town after hearing from UHD board member Roger Hanson.

Presenting UHD CEO Rick Ash’s annual report on the hospital’s local growth, Hanson informed the council of UHD’s “very good year” and increase of both patient and revenue traffic before fielding questions on Winnebago’s clinic.

“Regulation says if we build a new clinic, we have to replace the present one in the same location,” Hanson said. “As a penalty, Medicare reimbursements would be taken away not only from here but the whole district.”

Because of the unlikelihood of replacing the current Winnebago clinic, since replacing it would mean leaving the city without a clinic for the duration of a demolition and construction, Robertson asked Hanson if it was “safe to say it’s virtually impossible to get a new clinic.”

Hanson said no.

“We’ve contacted the state and others to see what we can do,” he said, noting that UHD hopes to find an alternative route for replacing Winnebago’s facility.

Voted to get proposals from realtors for a relisting of city duplexes that had been for sale.

The city previously received and rejected an offer for the duplexes from Jim and Judy Ness, of Homestead Realty, and decided Tuesday to take a different approach in a potential sale of the buildings. Ziegler said a separate realtor had expressed interest in representing Winnebago as sellers, and the council opted to consider that route.

“We probably shouldn’t be in the housing business,” said council member Jean Anderson, “but we shouldn’t give (them) away for something less than what we owe on (them).”

Heard a 2016 audit report from Kyle Meyers, of Abdo, Eick & Meyers, on the city’s finances.

Meyers revealed that Winnebago saw a total net increase of more than $14,900 in 2016 as opposed to an increase of more than $106,000 in 2015, but that drop-off was fueled by increased public safety costs and removal-of-building expenses.

Approved more than $23,000 in upgrades to the city pool, which needed new heaters, as well as the Winnebago Kids Fund’s request to purchase $6,850 worth of rubber mulch for the soon-to-be-renovated West City Park.