Land Trust, Nature Conservancy, county department working to purchase, preserve lakefront property in Port
The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and an Ozaukee County department want to purchase and preserve about 210 acres of former VK Development land mostly in the City of Port Washington that was once to be the heart of a sprawling, upscale subdivision with lakefront mansions and a resort hotel, Land Trust Executive Director Shawn Graff said Monday.
Instead of the site of palatial homes on the city’s far south side, the property — a rare tract of undeveloped land running primarily along the Lake Michigan bluff east of Highway C — could become a county-owned nature preserve that protects and makes accessible to the public an area that includes two environmentally sensitive areas of regional significance, one mile of shoreline and an important part of the migratory bird corridor, Graff said.
“The opportunity to preserve this much Lake Michigan frontage in southeastern Wisconsin is huge,” Graff said. “This would be an amazing asset for the county that everyone could enjoy.”
Andrew Struck, the county’s director of planning and parks, said this is a rare opportunity to preserve a unique piece of land.
“I don’t know of any other parcel like this between Milwaukee and Door County,” he said. “We absolutely want to protect this.”
The Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin have had what Graff called “positive” conversations with Waukesha State Bank, which foreclosed on the properties — several contiguous parcels once owned by the Brookfield-based VK Development and VK Homes
“We want to negotiate an option to purchase as soon as possible, but the bank is exploring its options, so this will take a little time,” Graff said. “We are cautiously optimistic that we can pull something together.”
The Land Trust and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources have had the property appraised, said Graff, who would not discuss the appraisals because they are still under review by the DNR.
The Land Trust hopes the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which is administered by the DNR, would be a source of significant funding for the project, Graff said.
Waukesha State Bank has the property listed at $18 million, but that includes a parcel of just less than 40 acres at the northeast end of the former VK holdings that the Land Trust and its partners do not intend to purchase.
That parcel, which has more than a half-mile of shoreline, is considered among the most valuable for development and was eliminated from consideration by the Land Trust and its partners in an effort to control the price of the rest of the property and out of deference to the City of Port Washington’s plans to have that area developed, Graff said.
The DNR had expressed interest in purchasing that parcel but dropped those plans in part because of the city’s desire to reserve it for residential development, Graff said.
The Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and the county Planning and Parks Department are instead focusing on the property to the south, a mix of farmland, wooded natural areas and bluff east of Highway C. A small part of the property, which includes the only section outside the City of Port Washington in the Town of Grafton, is west of Highway C to the north and south of Stonecroft Drive.
The land east of Highway C includes two areas that have been earmarked for preservation in the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission’s Regional Natural Areas and Critical Species Habitat Protection Plan and the county’s Parks and Open Spaces Plan.
Cedar Heights Gorge, which runs from the center of the north half of the property to the lake and is dominated by white cedars, is an area of regional environmental significance.
Farther south along the bluff is the Port Washington Clay Banks, an area considered to be a critical habitat for several plant species.
“The Nature Conservancy thinks it’s very important to protect those areas, but it’s also important to note that such a large, undeveloped tract of land along the lake is an extremely important stopover for migratory birds,” Rodney Walter, director of habitat protection for the The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, said. “This is really a very unique property.”
The Conservancy, Walter said, is particularly interested in the property because it is part of the Harrington Beach-Kohler Andrae Migratory Corridor, an area of undeveloped land that includes Harrington Beach State Park and the Land Trust-owned Forest Beach Migratory Preserve, both in the Town of Belgium. These areas are located along migratory routes and provide critical stopover sites for birds.
The Land Trust, which has spearheaded several notable preservation efforts in Ozaukee County; The Nature Conservancy, the largest environmental nonprofit organization in America that has protected more than 119 million acres throughout the world; and the county, which worked with the Land Trust to acquire what is now known as Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve about a half-mile south of the former VK land, all plan to play significant roles in acquiring and preserving the land.
The Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy plan to negotiate the sale and raise money for the purchase.
“Obviously, whatever the price is it will be quite expensive, so it will require a major fundraising effort,” Graff said.
The involvement of the Conservancy is important because it has the ability to finance the purchase of the property while fundraising efforts are ongoing, Graff said.
“We can assist with fundraising and put some money into this project, but primarily we can take a loan from our world organization to purchase the property and hold it temporarily,” Walter said.
The county is being asked to make a $600,000 contribution to project and would assume ownership of the property and manage it as a public nature preserve much like Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve.
But this coalition faces significant challenges.
It may have to compete in a revived real estate market for land that is being aggressively marketed to developers. Waukesha State Bank has listed the land in the Wall Street Journal’s Mansion section.
“We probably only have one shot at this,” Graff said. “The economy is slowly rebounding, so who knows how long this property will be available.”
Randy Tetzlaff, the City of Port Washington’s director of planning and development, said there is increasing interest in the land.
“We had quite a few calls lately about the property because of the Wall Street Journal ad,” he said. “They have been calls from out-of-state people who are requesting a lot of detailed information, have hired very good planners and are quite serious about this.”
Also in question is the county’s involvement. The Natural Resources Committee has recommended the county include $600,000 for the land purchase in a plan to borrow millions of dollars for capital improvement projects, but support for such “non-essential” projects is questionable, County Board Chairman Lee Schlenvogt said.
“We have a $5 million list of essential projects that include things like more than $1 million of road repairs,” Schlenvogt said. “I get the feeling from supervisors that they’re not that interested in the non-essential items on our list, and purchasing a nature preserve is definitely considered non-essential.
“I know this is a pristine area, but using taxpayers’ money to purchase and maintain land is a hard sell.”
County Administrator Tom Meaux said the County Board will discuss the list of projects to be included in the borrowing package on May 15 in an effort to have a final list for board approval in June. The board’s options are not to borrow any money, borrow $5 million to cover essential projects or borrow up to $10 million to pay for some “value added” projects like a nature preserve.
“I can see a scenario where the county isn’t interested in contributing to the purchase of the land but would be interested in assuming responsibility for maintaining it,” Meaux said. “It’s a wonderful idea, but we have more wonderful ideas than money.”
The Land Trust and its partners also appear to be dealing with a city that is less than enthusiastic about the prospect of valuable land that was annexed for the express purpose of development being taken off the tax rolls.
When asked if plans for a nature preserve were good news for the city, Tetzlaff said, “I would say more bad news than good because we would lose tax base.”
The city annexed 455 acres of rural land in 2000 to accommodate developer Vincent Kuttemperoor’s plan for his massive Port Vincent subdivision. The development, which sparked years of planning by the city, was to include 574 single-family houses with an average price of $435,000, condominiums, a 450-room resort hotel and commercial and industrial development.
The land, however, was never developed and Kuttemperoor’s companies eventually lost most of it to foreclosure.
“We’ll never have what VK was proposing for this land, but there are developers who are interested,” Tetzlaff said.
The city, he said, would like to see a compromise in which the Land Trust and its partners preserve specific natural areas of concern — Cedar Height Gorge and Port Washington Clay Banks — and the city would work to have the rest of the land developed.
“We have no objection to the preservation of the critical natural areas, but much of the land is flat as a pancake and perfect for development,” Tetzlaff said.
Image Information: STANDING ON property east of Highway C in the City of Port Washington that once was to be the site of an upscale VK Development subdivision, Ozaukee Washington Land Trust Executive Director Shawn Graff (left) gave Land Trust Board Secretary Marjie Tomter and President Dan Dineen the lay of the land Tuesday. The Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, as well as an Ozaukee County committee, are interested in purchasing and preserving much of the land. Photo by Bill Schanen IV