Is this Hazzard or Oneida County, WI? The Travails of a Progressive Brewer in Trump Country
In this week’s newsletter, we’re going to take a break from state and national politics and focus on the politics of our own Oneida County and the Town of Minocqua-- simply because it’s a fascinating peek into small-town dysfunction caused by ego, personal animus, and a lack of complex problem-solving skills writ large.
If you don’t want to read a story about dysfunctional local government that seems like an episode out of the 80's sitcom "The Dukes of Hazzard," then don’t waste your time on this post, except for the next three lines in which we’ll give you an update on our large projects/objectives for the upcoming state elections.
- We raised the $20K to put up our signs in Northern Wisconsin condemning Tiffany/Johnson for lying about the Jan. 6 attacks. Thank you, those signs will go up in August.
- We will be publishing a list of companies next week that have donated to these traitors so that you can protest with your pocket books.
- We will be announcing a big partnership in the last week of July that we hope will become a wonderful tool to make Northern Wisconsin more progressive.
Ok so now back to local politics.
The real reason I’m writing this story today is because my lawyers have asked me to come up with a synopsis of how the Town of Minocqua and Oneida County have harassed and obstructed the Minocqua Brewing Company in the process of opening our new Taproom.
They wanted a full accounting in order to prepare our upcoming lawsuit against these guys, so I figured if I had to do it anyway, I’d tell the story to you all as well.
It’s not gonna be short but I guarantee that it will be interesting…
It all started in May, 2020, when I decided the Minocqua Brewing Company wasn’t going to seat our customers indoors because it wasn’t safe to do so during Covid, and I was going to put up a large tent in the parking lot to serve our guests.
In Minocqua, like in many cities, we owned half of our parking lot, but the Town owned the other half that abutted a large city park (Torpy). Very few people knew this because we maintained the entire parking lot as part of an agreement with the town, and the town let all of our customers park there, except during big events in the park, as part of that agreement.
I called Minocqua Town Chairman Mark Hartzheim, and asked him if we could put a tent over the town’s section of the parking lot, and he said no.
“Why? All of the park’s public events have been cancelled due to Covid. The only people parking there will be our customers, and since we’ve been a very vocal leader in Covid safety since the pandemic started, they certainly won’t mind the inconvenience of finding nearby parking if it means they can safely eat outdoors.
“Sorry, the rules are the rules.”
“But there’s also a rule against putting up tents all summer long and delivering beer to people in their homes. ALL THOSE RULES have been relaxed because of Covid, and by not letting us serve customers in this shared space that we’ve maintained for decades, you’re cutting off half of our revenue stream.”
“Serve people inside like all the other restaurants in town if you’re worried about making money.”
So that is when I lost my patience with the Town of Minocqua, and our Town Chairman in particular. Hartzheim had been co-opted by Trump’s disinformation machine and believed that Covid wasn’t a serious health threat, and my business was going to suffer as a result.
Next, after Wisconsin Governor Evers mandated the wearing of masks throughout the state, a measure that was by no means BOLD because it had been taken by a majority of states at the time, the Oneida County Sheriff and the Minocqua’s Chief of Police put out public statements REFUSING TO ENFORCE the Governor’s mandate.
In what crazy universe does a pipsqueak little police chief have the right to refuse an order from his governor?
Of course, I PUBLICLY called for both the town and county to reign in their law enforcement departments and force them to follow their clear chain of command.
As an aside, less than three months prior to this episode, I led a fundraiser called “Customer X” that provided free lunches to our police and all essential workers who were braving the pandemic and putting their lives at risk to help their communities. I LOVED OUR POLICE early in the pandemic. Their public refusal to enforce a needed mask mandate was heartbreaking to me.
Fast forward to October, 2020, after laying off all of my employees because Mitch McConnell held up the 2nd round of Covid Stimulus--not because American small businesses didn’t DESPERATELY need it--but because Trump made Covid relief a political football before an election, I put up a HUGE Biden Sign on the side of my building.
My back was against the wall because I cared about keeping people safe, and my government punished me for it. Of course I was gonna support Biden.
I immediately got a letter from Oneida County telling me that my sign violated a county ordinance, and I would have to pay a fine every day until I took that sign down.
Oh Boy….that was a DOOZY, and one that would ultimately humiliate the county government as my post about it went viral. They were reminded by thousands of commenters that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the size of political signs couldn’t be regulated under the 1st Amendment to free speech.
This laid the groundwork for a fair amount of ANIMUS between the Minocqua Brewing Company and our local governments, both town and county, but we didn’t know how nasty it would get until we had to apply to get building permits for our new Taproom in the summer of 2021.
We submitted a plan to the Town of Minocqua Planning Commission that illustrated an intent to restore and renovate a historic and decaying Texaco Gas station building into a new use that included a retail store and an outdoor beer garden.
We also acknowledged to the town that our deed showed an abandoned right-of-way between our property and the highway, because the highway had been moved decades in the past and those lot lines had never been updated to show who owned it. The previous owners of our building had always used the property as theirs, but the lines clearly showed that no one really “owned” it.
We called this right-of-way the “Porkchop,” because it looked like a porkchop. Little did we know how rotten this pig would become.
We told the town that to clear up any confusion, we would like to purchase the porkchop and/or lease it from the town, because it had no use to anyone but us.
Unfortunately, the mere suggestion that we might not have the rights to this strip of land, that there might be an ownership issue down the road, and that we were willing to pay more in property taxes or lease if from them as a way to ward off future conflict, emboldened the town to assert its right of ownership over this bit of land and refuse to “sell” it to us—which fits right along with the adage “no good deed goes unpunished.”
Now that the town “took” the porkchop, the space remaining on our lot line did not satisfy the county’s parking lot requirements for commercial spaces with our square footage (7 off-street parking spaces).
In other words, a zoning rule requires 7 off-street parking spaces for commercial property of our size, but does allow for an exemption in situations exactly like ours, in which the property is OLD and landlocked between other properties.
Here’s the wording of the exemption.
F. Exemptions or Potential Increases/Reductions for required parking space.
1. In those areas of a town that were developed into business district prior to zoning and the buildings are built more or less up to the lot lines with no parking provided on the lots and no parking could be provided under section 9.77(E), without relocating or tearing down of buildings, parking will be determined after conferring with and receiving recommendations from the town board.
Note the wording states that the county would CONFER with and weigh RECOMMENDATIONS from the town board, but ultimately the power was theirs to grant us a parking exemption. This will be important later in the story.
Well, as expected, the Town of Minocqua REFUSED to grant us a parking exemption, which created a hardship for us. We could no longer operate because we couldn’t fulfill a county zoning requirement imposed on us by the town, because the town took away part of the land we needed to fulfill that same zoning requirement.
Read that again.
We could no longer operate because we couldn’t fulfill a COUNTY zoning requirement imposed on us by the TOWN, because the town took away part of the land we needed to fulfill that zoning requirement.
It’s quite humorous if you marinate in that statement for awhile, but it’s also entirely contemptible.
We of course fought back--demanding a hearing in front of the entire town board that requested exemptions to be made to the number and size of our required parking spaces, seeing as their previous decision completely rendered our property unusable.
The town had followed Hartzheim’s lead up until this point, until we published emails that he had sent doing everything he could to delay and obstruct us from moving forward, including forcing our civil engineer to get department of transportation (DOT) approvals on issues that were within the county’s jurisdiction.
We’ve enclosed some out of MANY examples below.
The town finally relented in December 2021, and voted to give their recommendation to the county to approve the Administrative Review Permit (ARP) with a reduced 6-stall parking lot with smaller dimensions than required by the county code, and that we could start construction with the understanding that we would hash out all the parking lot details with county zoning staff in future months.
I made the decision to acquiesce to a parking lot because I needed to be open in the summer to recoup my investment on the property and associated construction, and a continued fight over a parking lot would jeopardize this.
So to sum up what happened…The board, who wouldn’t grant us a parking exemption so that we could eventually put a beer garden on our lot, gave us an exemption to create an unsafe parking lot WAY TOO SMALL for the amount of cars it allowed…specifically to make sure we COULDN’T build a beer garden down the road.
Imagine a brewery that isn’t allowed to have a space where people can drink its beer! That’s what we got from the town last December, 2021.
At this point, I want to remind the reader that the building in question is on the Wisconsin historical register. It was a once-beautiful and rare Texaco gas station with unique architecture and brickwork; one that was left in decay and was slated to be razed. We were trying to revitalize part of Minocqua’s history, and instead of being thanked by the town government for this needed investment, we were hindered by them every step of the way.
After clearing the town’s hurdles, we ran into some others—namely a frozen ground throughout April that made building a parking lot impossible, and a booming construction environment in Wisconsin due to the pandemic delaying projects for years.
The building season was shorter and there was more work to be done. Contractors couldn’t catch up, had spread themselves too thin, and construction delays were now growing from weeks to months across the state.
Knowing we’d have a problem finishing our parking lot before the official start of the summer tourism season, Memorial Day Weekend, we wrote to the town’s attorney on May 5th, trying to avoid another fight with the Town Board, and ask him to work with us by allowing us to open with a “certificate of occupancy,” assuring the powers-that-be that the building was safe, even though our parking lost was unfinished.
Greg Harrold, the Town’s attorney, delayed responding to us for three crucial weeks, sending us a response dated May 25th--merely days before Memorial Day weekend. He refused to allow us to open until our parking lot was finished but added that we needed to make our parking lot out of “blacktop,” even though that wasn’t even a condition of our permit.
After getting this letter, riddled with legal errors and completely outside of the attorney’s jurisdiction, I demanded yet another hearing in front of the town board, naively thinking they actually could shut us down until we fulfilled the conditions of the county’s ARP.
It turns out they couldn’t shut us down because Minocqua is an unincorporated town that doesn’t have any jurisdiction over zoning issues. Many of it's town board members specifically stated at this meeting that they didn’t have any jurisdiction over a county-approved permit, even though Hartzheim had inserted himself into the process at every step, and they had rejected my request for a parking exemption within the COUNTY’S ordinances at a TOWN meeting. While they claimed they had no jurisdiction, that didn’t stop them from refusing to let me open my doors without a promise of money held in escrow with the TOWN until I completed my agreement with the COUNTY.
As a side note, a member of the Minocqua Town Board, Jon Thompson, is also a member of a Facebook Hate Group created against me. Imagine being a town board member and belonging to such a group. He posted to this group days before the meeting, inviting members to come and intimidate me. Jon must have been told by the town’s attorney that by doing this, he violated my right to due process, because he appropriately recused himself from the meeting as a result.
After losing thousands of dollars in sales because we were told, by a town attorney with no jurisdiction in the matter, that we wouldn’t be allowed to open on Memorial Day weekend, I went into crisis mode and rented a nearby office space that allowed us to start selling our beer. We immediately got a permit from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue to sell at this new address because our Federal and State Brewer’s permit allows us to have one retail outlet.
Nevertheless, Karl Jennrich, the same zoning official that tried to fine us for hanging our Biden sign 2 years prior, tried to fine us $750 for selling our beer without a permit!
The story comes full circle!
We did some digging and discovered that the last county retail permit pulled for that address was in the 1990s, and that many retail outlets had operated at the same address since then with no permit. Additionally, that building was on the tiny island of Minocqua, where one could buy alcohol within a stone’s throw of our newly-rented space. There was NO WAY we were breaking local zoning laws even though we aren’t technically required to abide by them because we have a state license to sell our beer.
At this point it has become clear that the town has no jurisdiction to shut our business down, and the county really holds all the power, although they NEVER assert it.
We submitted an application to the county to amend our originally ARP to NOT include a parking lot. It was always a bad decision to capitulate to the town’s demands, but one I made out of expediency to just be able to open for business.
The county zoning staff, in a move to insulate themselves from political fall-out, punted the decision back to the town, yet again, to decide on a parking exemption, but also punted to the county zoning committee, which met last week, to get “direction from them" on whether they should punt back to the town.
I attended that zoning committee meeting via Zoom, and wasn’t allowed to speak by the County Board Chairman, Scott Holewinski, after repeatedly asking to explain my case on why the Town Board has shown it has a conflict of interest with regard to my case.
Conflict of interest you ask? Here’s why…
The Town of Minocqua created a conflict of interest with regards to granting a parking exemption to the Minocqua Brewing Company because they previously imposed a parking requirement on us that couldn’t be fulfilled because they took away part of the land we needed to fulfill that parking requirement.
What happened at the County Zoning Committee meeting?
As expected, they gave the zoning staff the blessing they asked for to punt this issue back to the town, after the town had first punted it to the Department of Transportation, then punted it to the county while telling the county what to do, then told me I couldn’t open for business without the jurisdiction to do so, then punted it back to the County when confronted about their lack of jurisdiction.
In every county meeting there is a brief period at the end where the public is allowed to comment, and that comment period is cut off after 3 minutes.
I waited for two hours to make a three-minute statement to the county planning and zoning committee, after not being allowed to speak while my agenda item was being discussed and punted back to the town. I was cut off by Chairman Holewinski after about a minute of speaking when I started listing off all the reasons the county should step in and do its job.
This is the story, soup to nuts, about the 3rd OBNOM WAR (Old Boys Network of Minocqua)—the War of the Parking Lot, which is still ongoing.
You’ve read the same story my lawyers will read next week, as we decide what kind of a case we have against these guys, and how much we should ask a judge to award us in lost revenue and unnecessary construction/planning costs.
It’s a long one, but this story needed to be told. We're going to keep fighting for the more important issues that the state of Wisconsin faces, but would be remiss if we didn't fight political shenanigans in our own backyard as well.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for sticking with us.
Owner, Minocqua Brewing Company
Founder, Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC