Janesville council OKs annexation, land-use changes and industrial zoning OK’d in greenhouse development on south side

Article written by Neil Johnson of the Janesville Gazette

JANESVILLE – Milwaukee developer Three Leaf Partners and the city of Janesville have reached an accord to annex and alter city land-use plans to allow a 1.5 million-square-foot strawberry greenhouse operation on the city’s south end.

But it was 30 acres of multifamily housing that might become part of the overall 175-acre proposed development off highways 51 and 11 that drew almost 2½ hours of comment from city residents at a public hearing Monday.

The single-family Quail Ridge subdivision borders the north side of what is now MacFarlane Pheasants farm, where developers plan to build the massive strawberry greenhouse that could employ as many as 140 people.

Many Quail Ridge residents who spoke at the hearing said they support a landmark greenhouse operation in their neighborhood. What they don’t like, they said, is Three Leaf’s intent to develop multifamily “affordable housing” on 30 acres to the north, land that is within a block of an established subdivision of single-family homes—even though the developer hasn’t forwarded any concrete plans for housing.

The Janesville City Council on Monday night unanimously pushed through a three-part set of proposals coming out of three public hearings. The parts included annexing 145 acres of farmland from the town of Rock into the city, clearing that land for sale by owner Bill MacFarlane to Three Leaf Partners and transforming the land from a pheasant farm to a large-scale, indoor hydroponic strawberry growing operation.

The council also unanimously approved rezoning the pheasant farm parcel to a light manufacturing zone. In another related vote, the council approved land-use changes recommended in another public hearing on a 6-1 tally. They’ll gear the land for a greater proportion of industrial development than a prior land-use plan had allowed.

He pointed out that, after the use changes, only about 11 acres are now being earmarked for use single-family housing that would mesh with the rest of the adjacent neighborhood.

Another resident near the development, Karen Johnson, said she had gotten a hold of city records that she said show more than 110 calls for police service for “nuisance” activity at River Flats, a 92-unit apartment building next to the Janesville police station downtown.

River Flats was completed in 2021 as one of several apartment developments the city has spurred in the last three years through use of tax incentives and state and federal housing security grants.

Karen Johnson said if River Flats is the new face of “affordable housing” in Janesville, she is worried about the effect similar multifamily housing might have on her neighborhood.

“Keep it (multifamily housing) out of the south side,” she said. “We don’t even have a decent grocery store. You’re just cramming more crap down on Janesville’s south side. Maybe it should be in your neighborhood. That’s where you should put it.”

City council members and city planners both said Monday night they haven’t seen detailed plans or a proposal for housing developments that Three Leaf intends to build out. The annexation and zoning changes OK’d by the council Monday don’t tie to any housing plans.

Three Leaf Partners President John Ford said his company doesn’t intend to build Section 8-subsidized low-income housing on the south side. He said Three Leaf typically uses a predominately market-rate model for multifamily housing, although he pointed out that local housing surveys show the need in Janesville for a blend of both “affordable” and single-family housing.

City Planning Director Duane Cherek said any housing development later proposed by Three Leaf or another developer would be vetted via zoning and site plan approval by the plan commission and council.

City Council President Paul Benson said he is not sure he would approve a multifamily housing project in the area—wedged between an existing housing subdivision and light commercial on Highway 51 in a spur dominated mainly by tavern businesses.

Heather Miller was the only council member to vote against the land-use change that would open the door for multifamily housing near Quail Ridge.

Few residents asked probing questions Monday about the main development at stake, but one resident did pose questions on how the greenhouses might be managed or used in the future if owners decided to depart from growing strawberries.

The resident asked if the owners of the greenhouses—twin facilities that would stretch over 1.5 million square feet of hydroponic growing space indoors, both about 25 feet tall—might switch to growing marijuana if Wisconsin legalizes medical or recreational use of the drug.

Ford said his company and a partner operator of the planned greenhouses have “no interest or intention” to ever convert it to grow pot.

Ford has estimated the development, including greenhouses, other unnamed light industrial developments at the site and housing developments could bring $300 million in development value, and ultimately, 500 jobs.

Ford said the strawberry greenhouses would likely have about 40 full-time employees and during busy growing seasons could employ an additional “75 or 100” seasonal employees. He said the average hourly employee at the greenhouses would earn hourly pay in the “upper teens.”

Three Leaf would be a “co-owner” of the greenhouses under a “co-development” with a hydroponic operator.

“We’re not developing and then leaving town,” Ford said.

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