Conservation organizations, city try to resolve preservation vs. development dispute over former VK land
A coalition of conservation groups that want to protect hundreds of acres of Lake Michigan bluff land on Port Washington’s far south side is scrambling this week to keep its dreams of a
public nature preserve alive in the face of opposition from city officials.
The groups — the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and Ozaukee County Planning and Parks Department — announced earlier this month their plan to
purchase and protect about 210 acres, which includes a mile of shoreline, as a county-owned preserve on land that was once to be an upscale VK Development subdivision complete with
lakefront mansions and a resort hotel.
The city responded almost immediately, making it clear at a meeting Monday with representatives of the conservation groups as well as other county officials that it would not sit quietly by
while land it annexed in 2000 for the purpose of development and tax base growth was preserved in its entirety and taken off the tax rolls forever.
“I think it’s fair to say the city certainly has reservations about this plan,” County Administrator Tom Meaux said.
Meaux said the city’s position will certainly affect the county’s decision to become involved in the project, which is significant because the county is seen a potential player of note in the
The county’s Natural Resources Board, which oversees the Planning and Parks Department, has recommended the county borrow $600,000 to help pay for the property, which is
expected to sell for millions of dollars. And as a nature preserve, the land is intended to be part of the county’s parks system.
The conservation groups met with county and city officials again on Tuesday and plan to resume talks Friday in an effort to hash out a deal — a preserve that is large enough to
accomplish several key conservation goals yet not so large that it usurps valuable real estate for city development.
The groups are negotiating with a sense of urgency because of a looming county deadline. On Wednesday, the County Board was expected to finalize a list of capital improvement
projects it will borrow money to pay for. Among the items being considered is the $600,000 contribution to the land purchase.
Barring any unforeseen breakthroughs, a nature preserve agreement was not expected in time for Wednesday’s meeting, but the board isn’t to vote on the borrowing projects until June 5.
“We’re trying to find some common ground before that (June 5 meeting) in a smaller (preservation) project,” Meaux said.
Port Washington Mayor Tom Mlada said he understands and shares to some degree the desire to protect the former VK Development land, which is between Highway C and the lake and
extends south beyond Stonecroft. But, he said, conservation groups need to understand the city’s desire to have some of that land developed.
“This doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing situation. We can find a middle ground, a balance, that preserves both open space and the city’s ability to grow and grow its tax base,” Mlada
said. “There is a commitment on the part of the city (to preservation), but it’s measured by an eye toward long-term development and the ability to grow our tax base.”
The city sees the former VK Development land as its last frontier. City Administrator Mark Grams said the property represents one of the city’s only opportunities for meaningful growth.
“We understand that not all this land will be developed, but there also needs to be an understanding that we can’t grow to the east for obvious reasons and we really can’t expand to the
west because of Saukville’s sanitary sewer district. To the north, we run into I-43, which leaves us with growth only to the south,” Grams said.
He noted that the city’s land-use plan calls for areas of environmental significance on the former VK property, as well as wetlands and a 150-foot-wide swath of land along the bluff, to
remain undeveloped. That plan, however, does not call for public access to those areas.
Grams noted that the city’s land-use plan conflicts with the county’s Parks and Open Spaces Plan, which calls for all the property to be protected. He said it concerns city officials that the
Planning and Parks Department was willing to move forward with its plan without regard for the city’s.
“It irritates us a little bit because from the very beginning there was an understanding that if there was a conflict between the county and municipalities, the city’s plan would trump the
county’s,” Grams said. “Some people seem to have forgotten that.”
Shawn Graff, executive director of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, said the conservation groups are working to accommodate the city’s interests but protecting just specific areas of
the sprawling property won’t result in meaningful land preservation.
The land 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.
“It’s not simply a matter of protecting these two natural areas,” Graff said. “We need meaningful buffers around them to protect these areas from development.”
Graff said more than half the property, perhaps as much as 150 acres, needs to be protected to accomplish the goals of the conservation groups.
“We’re still looking at a significant amount of property,” he said.
The property includes large areas of former wetlands south of the gorge that, if restored, would significantly improve drainage and help protect the Lake Michigan bluff and surrounding
land from erosion, Graff said.
“Development there would only exacerbate the problem,” he said.
In addition, the property — unique because it is one of the last, large undeveloped parcels along Lake Michigan in southeastern Wisconsin — is a critical part of a migratory bird corridor
that would complement other protected stopovers, including the county-owned Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton, as well as the Land Trust-owned Forest Beach
Migratory Preserve and Harrington Beach State Park, both in the Town of Belgium.
If the migratory bird corridor on the former VK property isn’t protected, it’s likely the coalition would lose a key partner in The Nature Conservancy, Graff said. The Conservancy, the largest
environmental nonprofit organization in the country, has the ability to finance the purchase of the property while fundraising efforts are ongoing, he said.
“If this project gets too small, we are going to lose our national partner,” Graff said. “They are going to see this as a local project and say, ‘So long and good luck.’”
Even if the conservation groups and city can arrive at an agreement and the county commits to playing a role in the project, there are other challenges. The groups have not yet been able
to negotiate an option to purchase the land from Waukesha State Bank, which acquired the property through foreclosure. The bank continues to market the land at a price of $18 million for
One of the concerns is that an offer on a fraction of that land will be far less attractive to the bank, which may be more interested in selling to a developer who would buy the entire parcel.
“There are a lot of complex factors at work here, but I feel good about the progress we’ve made, and I hope that progress is enough to keep everybody at the table,” Mlada said.