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Saturday night saw us climb the historic steps of Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin, for an evening of showering meteors, music wafting up from the lake shore, and fireworks over the Bay. Yerkes is the world’s first astrophysical laboratory, and home to the world’s largest conventional telescope. Visiting friends from Chicago prompted us to join Yerkes chief tour guide Richard Dreiser for a late night reverie under the annual Perseid meteor shower.
We began the evening in the darkness outside the observatory, straining our naked eyes and using binoculars to spot the first few meteors racing across the sky. We spotted several man-made satellites too, including the space station, making their slow un-twinkling progress, unlike the high airplanes with their strobing. Gradually we spotted various stars, and then the foamy Milky Way began to appear. Meanwhile soft strains of music drifted up to us from the waterside pavilion that is home to the Music By The Lake summer series at George Williams College.
Then, we walked the long corridor and up a three-story circular staircase to the dome of the 24-inch reflector. As the dome motor cranked away, and the giant curving blades parted, slight flashes reflected the fireworks show beginning a mile away at the Bay, where hundreds of pleasure boats gathered to watch. We then each had a chance to view Saturn and its rings, and M57, the spectacular summer centerpiece of the northern hemisphere night skies, pictured here. It was a magical evening under the stars.
Last night, I witnessed, along with more than 150 other agitated citizens, a City Council meeting in the small Wisconsin resort town of Lake Geneva, where the mayor and aldermen, including two women, “entertained” with a stylized Kabuki performance in which the local government’s secret greed for geographic growth was pushed into the open through challenges by dozens of local citizen speakers intent on restraining such growth urges and preserving the small-town character of their community.
At issue was a massive 710-acre partially wooded rural site, a major watershed into pristine Geneva Lake, with important wetlands, adjacent to a State Park, which separates the site from the rest of Lake Geneva. The property had been purchased from local farmers by a developer more than a decade ago. He tried to get it rezoned for residential building by the Town of Linn. Failing that, he urged the land be annexed by the City of Lake Geneva, where he thought he’d get a better development deal. But when he property was annexed, and the developer came forward with plans for more than a thousand homes and a golf course community, the citizenry balked, and opposed such a massive development that would over time almost double the size of their city. Plans were revised, but the city council rejected the project, under increasing pressure from it citizenry.
Last night, dozens of the citizens present spoke out, with passion, intelligence and even rhetorical brilliance, on the need to protect and preserve this land in a natural state, for a variety of environmental reasons and to constrain the long-term growth of their small lakeside community. The City Council listened to hour after hour of such heart-felt testimony, then quickly moved to a vote, with most of the council members saying nary a word. One alderman had the courage, at the last-minute, to point a finger at the mayor, suggesting that an under-the-counter deal had been made with the developer. to drop a $120 million law suit against the city claiming it had unfairly blocked the developer, in exchange for a vote to remap the land from rural holding (meaning 20 years — a generation — before residential development could be considered) to residential. Such remapping would be the first step in rezoning the land to allow housing development. The city’s corporation counsel hushed the nervous alderman.
The citizens argued that the community’s Comprehensive Master Plan, adopted less than 18 months ago, requires the land to remain rural. The City Council seemed to view their own master plan as being just as irrelevant as they viewed the citizen speaker opinions. The City Council chose to ignore a previous community referendum which had overwhelmingly turned down the proposed development.
The dance played out, as choreographed by the City Council. After the mayor mumbled that the city, which currently already has 1100 other approved residential development sites, at a time when nothing is being developed, must plan for the future, and have an area to grow, the council voted to let its small town character slip away, delivering on its decade-old secret promise to give the developer exactly what he wanted. It was nearly midnight when the dejected citizens could go home, having witnessed a performance that left them further ashamed of and estranged from their community’s government.
This dance may be over, but the play continues.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, near where I hang my winter (and summer) hat, will host on Feb. 2-5 the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Championship, the top snow sculpting competition for U.S. carvers. Entrants come from as far away as Alaska. Who knows — somebody may decide to carve Sarah Palin this year! Talk about frozen beauty. Final judging will take place the morning of Saturday, Feb. 5th, on the frozen lawns of the Riviera Ballroom and boat docks at Lake Geneva’s shore front. The event is held in the midst of Lake Geneva’s annual Winterfest. I never miss it! An early tour of the creative snow sculptures is the perfect appetizer for a big country breakfast.