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Chair factory redux PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 26 August 2015 21:31

A proposal for commercial development of public lakefront land recalls the era when Port Washington lake views were blocked by the brick walls of factory buildings

Views of the water were blocked by ramparts of brick and mortar. At the north end of the harbor, the massive presence of a Wisconsin Chair Co. building made the harbor invisible to anyone walking or driving on
Washington Street or living in the nearby neighborhood.

    Those were the opening words of an Ozaukee Press editorial published on November 6, 2014, about the time the first murmurings of a city plan to sell public lakefront land for private development were heard.
The editorial described the Port Washington harbor area as it looked before the chair factory buildings were razed in the 1950s.

    Next week the Common Council will consider a project that, in an eerily accurate rendition of deja vu, calls for construction of a building on that same site that will block the harbor views that were revealed when
the chair factory was torn down. The new building would have a two-story brick facade facing Washington Street and is designed to recall the look of the chair factory manufacturing plant.

    The council is expected to approve the project on Tuesday even though the proposal has been in city hands for less than three weeks. Hasty approval is not what this proposal needs, for it will only increase the
likelihood that elected officials will make a mistake that will haunt the city for generations.

    The move to transfer to a private developer land owned by the public between the north slip marina and Washington Street is fraught with consequences that cry for thoughtful, unhurried evaluation. For one, the
proposed building would block lake views that might never be restored.

    Further, even a city government that has appeared hell-bent to sell the harbor land should view the paucity of proposals for the site as a red flag warning of doubts about the property’s commercial potential. After
enthusiastic talk about attracting a brewpub or “destination shopping experience,” the city publicized and widely distributed requests for proposals—and received just one.

    The single proposal it attracted, for a Paramount blues-themed building called the Blues Factory, is incomplete. The city’s RFP (request for proposal) attracted what more accurately could be called a PIP (proposal
in progress).    

    The city asked for proposals to acquire the land, which has an appraised value of $575,000, but the Blues Factory response contains no mention of a purchase price. The proposal calls for a building with a
restaurant, but would likely be built with the restaurant space vacant. Financing for the project, which relies in part on so-called crowdfunding via Internet solicitation, is apparently uncertain enough that it is
dependent on a $1 million taxpayer subsidy.

    Even more than the uncertainty over the viability of the proposal, public angst over the loss of visual and physical lake access is a compelling reason to put on the brakes. In large numbers, citizens have said they
don’t want the lake views and open lakefront space that define the city, attract visitors and please residents compromised by a commercial building.

    As for that building, it is unfortunate that developer Christopher Long’s Blues Factory concept is now enveloped in what is becoming an increasingly strident controversy, for aside from its unacceptable location
Long’s vision of an enterprise that would celebrate Port Washington’s role in the growth of America’s indigenous blues music in the early 1900s as the home of the Paramount Records division of the Wisconsin Chair
Co. has much to admire. The museum, performance hall and banquet facility he envisions, freed from the negative baggage of compromising natural lakefront aesthetics, would be a boon to the city. City officials
and private property owners should be working to help find an appropriate site to take advantage of this opportunity.

    That 2014 editorial continued:

    Progress came and in an era of remarkably enlightened land use the buildings were cleared away and the north slip was remade into a heart-of-the-city marina embraced by walkways, a park and open space that
ensure the satisfying water views that are now Port Washington’s signature.

    Yes, that was progress.

    Blocking lake views once again with an insensitively placed building would be something else.

    In the minds of many of the citizens who love this beautiful lakeshore city, it would be a foolish step backwards.

Bacteria at the beach PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 19 August 2015 18:20

Everyone knows what’s causing the lake at Belgium beaches to be unfit for swimming—the mystery is why it’s tolerated

On some days, Lake Michigan water along Belgium beaches, including those of Harrington Beach State Park, is so full of E. coli and other bacteria that it is a menace to human health. Accidental ingestion of even a small quantity of it could cause a dangerous infection.  

    Ozaukee County Public Health Director Kirsten Johnson put it like this: “I wouldn’t swim in that water.”

    Many people do swim in it, of course. An estimated 175,000 people visit the park’s beaches every year. The private beaches adjacent to the park are also popular with swimmers and boaters.

    This health threat is not breaking news. Its presence has been known for years—a 2013 national study singled out the Belgium shoreline as a major contributor to Wisconsin’s standing as having the second worst water quality in the nation along its beaches. And its source is common knowledge—manure runoff from farm fields abetted by human waste from illegal septic systems.

    The only mystery about this health menace is why it is tolerated.

    The Ozaukee County Land and Water Management Department has been working on the problem for years, but with limited enforcement powers it has had to rely mainly on education and voluntary compliance.

    That the results have been disappointing was underlined by a recent report by the county health director to the Belgium Town Board indicating that as little as half an inch of rain can cause dangerously high E. coli levels.

    Last year the county used a $20,000 grant to hire an engineering firm to design a stormwater remediation system to stem the flow of polluted runoff into the lake. The results so far have been a study by the engineers that confirms the severity of the problem and a suggestion of installing gravel dams in ditches.

    Band-aids like that can probably help, but the only sure way to keep E. coli-rich runoff out of the lake is to stop it at its source.  

    Some homeowners who have private septic systems were probably surprised to see “failing septic systems” mentioned as one of the sources in the engineering study reported on in last week’s Ozaukee Press. Septic systems, after all, are tightly regulated by the county and homeowners are required to have them tested every three years.

    Andy Holschbach, director of the Land and Water Management Department, explains that some septic systems in rural Belgium, though they pass inspection as functioning systems, may be connected to farm-field drainage tiles. As evidence, he points out that several years ago septic tanks for a restaurant, tavern and several homes in Lake Church were found to be connected to tiles that drained into Sucker Brook.

    Still, dairy cows vastly outnumber humans in the two watersheds that drain into the lake at Belgium beaches, and until the handling of their prodigious output of waste is improved, water at Belgium beaches will often be unfit to swim in.

    There are proven ways to mitigate manure runoff, including manure management plans based on best practices, tilling methods that lessen runoff, avoidance of reckless manure handling such as spreading it on frozen slopes in winter and the creation of buffer zones of runoff-inhibiting vegetation at edges of fields.

    Holschbach has been advocating these remedies to farmers for a long time. Some have responded; some, as the dismal state of Lake Michigan water quality off Belgium shores attests, have not.

    Counties need help in dealing with farm pollution. It’s not just a problem in the Town of Belgium. It’s a problem throughout the state. Water quality—dead zones in Green Bay, lakes and rivers clogged by algae energized by nutrients from farm fields, threatened drinking water, polluted beaches—needs stronger regulatory and enforcement protection from the state.

    Recent sessions of the Legislature have limited the Department of Natural Resources role in environmental protection. That’s the wrong direction to go.

    Every state legislator should be embarrassed that swimming in beautiful Lake Michigan at beautiful Harrington Beach State Park can be dangerous to your health.


Fight for the lighthouse PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 12 August 2015 20:59

It’s an absurd policy that doesn’t give preference to Port Washington to become the next owner of its lighthouse, but the city has a strong case to make

It’s hard to believe the federal government would give Port Washington’s lighthouse to any organization other than the City of Port Washington.

    But then it’s hard to believe the feds are actually giving away their lighthouses.

    Nevertheless, that’s the state of things. Since 2001, the U.S. government has divested itself of 154 lighthouses. Port Washington’s is now on the list of those slated to go to a new owner.

    The new owner will not necessarily be the City of Port Washington, and that is ridiculous.         The city wants the lighthouse. It is Port Washington’s most recognizable symbol, after all. If the lighthouse is no longer going to belong to the federal government, then it must belong to the city. Yet, in its mysterious bureaucratic protocols, the General Services Administration, the agency that disposes of federal lighthouses, has no policy of giving preference to the communities that have lived with these structures since they were built.

    To get ownership of their lighthouses, municipalities have to compete with non-profit organizations that have expressed an interest in acquiring them. And, sure enough, an organization that wants Port’s lighthouse has surfaced.

     The want-to-be owner of our lighthouse is named the Geek Group and describes itself as “a non-profit organization which is dedicated to scientific and technological research and education and having a fun time.”

     As reasons for existence go, those, including having a fun time, are just fine, but that doesn’t mean the group deserves to own and have fun with the Port Washington lighthouse. It would be a blow to the city—a below-the-belt punch—if the GSA gave it to the Geek Group, which is based inland at Grand Rapids, Mich.

    In that event, Port Washington would have no control over the symbol that identifies it in its logo, signs and printed pieces and in the minds of its residents and visitors. The Geek Group could paint it day-glo green or let it fall into ruin. Or the organization could go out of existence and abandon the lighthouse.

    Fortunately, Port Washington officials recognize the value of the lighthouse and are willing to fight for it. The city has submitted a letter to the GSA indicating it is interested in owning the structure and Mayor Tom Mlada has urged the Common Council to approve submitting a formal application to acquire it.

    In another good move, the mayor has appointed a large committee with a membership that spans many interests in the city to guide the application process. The committee needs to make a strong case to the GSA that the lighthouse must go to the city. Here is some ammunition it can use to do that:

    In the 80 years that the lighthouse has resided at the end of the north breakwater, it has become an icon that is of incalculable value as a symbol of this port city. In the hands of non-resident owners, the city would not be able to control the appearance of its symbol.

    The city, with the help of community organizations, is prepared to take responsibility for the maintenance of the structure that has long been neglected by its current owner, the federal government. And it is in its interest, more than that of any organization, to do it right.

    The city has demonstrated its willingness to do that with its commitment to the improvement of its waterfront facilities and its ability to secure funding to rebuild parts of the north breakwater on which the lighthouse sits.

    The City of Port Washington will always be here to take care of the lighthouse. The longevity of the Geek Group, which says it wants to use the lighthouse for unspecified research, is unpredictable, but there certainly are no guarantees of a long-term commitment to the lighthouse.

    And the final point: Giving it to the community that has grown up with the lighthouse, through most of the 20th century and into the 21st century, is simply the right thing to. Even the dispassionate bureaucrats of the federal government should understand that.

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