Out nearly $3 million, landowner alleges River Hills broke the law in blocking apartment plan

Still wants to develop multi-family project on site

Rendering by HGA.

Last updated on November 11th, 2019 at 10:17 am

When the Mandel Group first proposed a multi-family and senior living development on the Eder farm in River Hills in 2016, the project was met with significant opposition. Some residents worried about the employees working at the nursing homes and one suggested renters shouldn’t have the same voting power as those who own homes in the village.

The Farm at River Hills proposal returned in 2018, scaled back and with no senior living component, but was eventually withdrawn.

Randle River Hills LP, the owner of the 55-acre property bordered by Greenbrook Drive and Brown Deer and Spruce roads, brought the proposal back a third time in May, only to have it rejected by the village.

The property owner has now filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Wisconsin, alleging the village broke the federal Fair Housing Act, Wisconsin’s Smart Growth law and procedural due process in rejecting the proposal.

Jonathan Eder, part of the family that has owned the property going back to the 1960s, said the goal is still to have the site developed to its highest and best use and that means the multi-family proposal that’s already been brought forward. He said the village’s “arcane and illegal” zoning laws are blocking that from happening.

“We think it’s clear that River Hills will benefit by opening the opportunity to live there to apartment dwellers, empty nesters, and diverse people, including those with lower income, the elderly, people with disabilities, and minorities – which by the way is what both state and federal law requires,” Eder said in an email. “Our property is the only undeveloped property in River Hills, and is ideally located and suited for this development.”

RRH is seeking more than $2.9 million in damages, a declaration that the village’s zoning laws and comprehensive plans are not valid and the ability to develop the property as it sees fit.

Asked for comment on the case, River Hills village attorney William Dineen said he had not read the complaint and could not comment on the specific allegations.

“The Village of River Hills has been lawfully zoned entirely single family residential continuously since its incorporation in 1930,” Dineen said in an email. “The River Hills single family residential zoning ordinances continue to be lawful and enforceable. The village believes that there is no merit to the claims and intends to vigorously defend its right to determine and enforce its single family residential zoning.”

Around 85% of River Hills is zoned for single-family homes on a minimum of 5 acres, according to the complaint. Around 13% is for houses on 2-acre lots and 2% is planned for homes on 1-acre lots. The village has a limited number of institutional uses for schools and houses of worship.

The complaint says RRH decided in 2014 to develop or sell the property and eventually began working with Mandel Group on the project.

“From the time it was suggested … the project was met with hostility and furious resistance from River Hills board members and residents,” the complaint says, adding that “misguided criticism” and “unreasonable” and “overt” hostility led Mandel Group to withdraw from the project.

Mandel dropping from the plan cost RRH the $2,936,450 option price the developer agreed to pay if the project received approval.

Instead, RRH negotiated for the rights to move forward with the project on its own, only to have the village quickly reject it in May.

The complaint alleges River Hills violated state law by not sending the proposal to its Plan Commission or holding a public hearing on it.

The complaint also alleges the village’s comprehensive plan, first approved in 2009, violates state law by not allowing for multi-family development.

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.