County a wary partner in nature preserve deal

Committee OKs grant application to aid Land Trust but officials concerned about cost of bluff land owned by bank
By 
DAN BENSON
Ozaukee Press staff

Despite some trepidation, members of the Ozaukee County Natural Resources Committee voted last week to recommend applying for a $1 million grant to help purchase an environmentally valuable natural area overlooking Lake Michigan at the south end of the City of Port Washington that has been entangled in a long-stalled real estate development that appears all but dead.

The area, consisting of a number of parcels totaling about 135 acres, is located between Highway C and Lake Michigan and roughly across from Stonecroft Drive, would be collectively called Clay Bluffs Cedar Gorge Nature Preserve.

It was first proposed in 2015 as part of the 200-acre Cedar Vineyard development.

The development proposed by the Highview Group of Lake Forest, Ill., was originally seen as a single project that would include a vineyard, winery and 80-some single-family homes, in addition to the nature preserve.

In December, however, Waukesha State Bank all but pulled the plug on the project, opting to negotiate the sale of the nature preserve apart from the housing development.

  The county and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust each applied for $1 million grants to help buy the preserve, but those grants expired last year as the real estate project languished.

But the uncertainty surrounding the project has unnerved some supervisors.

“We need a full board discussion on how the scope (of the project) has changed,” Supr. Bruce Ross, a member of the Natural Resources Committee, said.

Supr. Doug Gall argued against applying for the grant.

“The first step is not (applying for) the grants,” Gall said. “We should know what the price is. To represent the taxpayers is to get to the bottom line cost. It’s our duty to do a tough negotiation.”

The grant would require a one-for-one match, which officials hope will come from a $1 million state Department of Natural Resources Stewardship grant being applied for by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust.

  The county also has secured a $300,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant.

Combined with $200,000 the county budgeted for the project in 2015, that means about $2.5 million is available for the project if all funding comes through, officials said. 

The land would be purchased by the Land Trust, then transferred to the county, similar to what was done when the county obtained ownership of the nearby Lions Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton.

Some supervisors said the price of the nature preserve land could be as high as $5 million. 

Waukesha State Bank officials have indicated a developer also is interested in the land.

The bank originally marketed the entire Cedar Vineyard land for $18 million but dropped the price to $15.9 million in mid-2018 when there were no takers, bank officials have said.

The value of the preserve property will be determined by an appraisal commissioned by the Land Trust. That appraisal should be complete in late February or early March, officials said. 

“Because grant funds are being used, the purchase price cannot exceed the appraised value,” County Administrator Jason Dzwinel said.

  If the money raised so far and the grant funds come up short, the Land Trust will seek the remaining funding from additional grants or other fundraising, county Planning and Parks Director Andrew Struck said.

Some supervisors said they fear that by applying for the grant, they are committed to accepting the money, as sometimes is required with government grants, and buying the preserve without knowing what the sales price is.

They also noted that the Land Trust will be the lead negotiator and suggested the county at least have representatives involved. 

“This project doesn’t happen without the grant,” Dzwinel reassured committee members. “Before we accept the grant, the board will have to say good project or bad project.”

The county should know by mid to late summer whether it has been awarded the grant, Struck said. 

The County Board will have to vote to accept it, Dzwinel said.

“The county will submit a pre-proposal that the federal government will use to assess the viability of our proposal,” Dzwinel said in an email.  

“Should the county be invited to submit a formal proposal we will bring the new configuration of the acreage identified for preservation to the full County Board for approval before any grants are accepted,” he said. “Both (County Board Chairman Lee Schlenvogt) and I want to make sure that project is supported by the County Board before advancing it from its current concept to one that is supported by county funds and grants.”

If neither the Land Trust nor the county receive either of the grants or refuse to accept them “that would be fatal to the project,” Dzwinel said.

Land Trust officials said they have high interest in the preserve.

“This would be the biggest conservation project undertaken by the Land Trust. It’s a once in a lifetime Lake Michigan land protection opportunity,” Land Trust Executive Director Tom Stolp said. “We want to see that land protected and open to the public. 

“This will enrich people’s lives,” he said. “Lions Den is a hugely popular destination, and we think this has the potential to be an even bigger draw. People are very excited about it.”

Some committee members also were concerned about the high number of dead ash trees in the preserve and saying removing them could be costly.

Dzwinel said the county’s practice at the nearby Lion’s Den Gorge and other locations is to remove the trees if they pose a hazard, such as being near trails or other areas frequented by people.

The committee voted 4-1 to apply for the grant on the condition a team of supervisors participate in the negotiations with the Land Trust.

Gall voted no while Ross, Barb Jobs, Bob Holyoke and Chairman Jennifer Rothstein voted yes.

After the meeting, Dzwinel wrote in an email that Schlenvogt and “at least” one other board member will be at the negotiating table with the Land Trust. 

  The bank has hired Robert E. Lee and Associates of Green Bay to draft a development plan for the northern portion of the property, which is closest to the city’s sewer and water services and thus considered the most developable.

The firm is expected to complete its work soon, with the bank presenting the concept to the city for approval. It will then take the plan to developers in the hope of finding someone to implement the plan.

The city had created a tax incremental financing district for the Cedar Vineyard development. It’s unknown whether a new developer would require a tax incremental finance district, which diverts property tax revenue to help finance a development’s infrastructure and other costs.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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