$2.3 million from Evers saves ‘jewel along lake’

Governor’s decision to allocate money for purchase, preservation of Cedar Gorge land in Port called ‘heroic’

STANDING AT THE EDGE of the 131-acre Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve last Thursday were three key players in the movement to preserve the land on the City of Port Washington’s far southeast side, (from left) Ozaukee Washington Land Trust Executive Director Tom Stolp, Ozaukee County Planning and Parks Director Andrew Struck and State Rep. Deb Andraca, who held a $2.3 million check from Gov. Tony Evers to help buy the property. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

The 131 acres that will become Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve on Port Washington’s far southeast side will be purchased by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust in the coming weeks, thanks to the announcement last week that Gov. Tony Evers was awarding the conservation group $2.3 million to buy the land.

The money puts the Land Trust over its $5.5 million fundraising goal to buy the land and preserve it in perpetuity.

“This is incredible news,” Land Trust Executive Director Tom Stolp said during a press conference before a group of more than 60 people at Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve to announce the funding Thursday, Aug. 18.

Stolp called Evers’ decision to fund the project “heroic,” and credited the community with making it happen.

“You advocated forcefully that open spaces need to be preserved,” Stolp said. “He answered that call when you made your wishes known. This is amazing, visionary leadership from Gov. Evers.”

Preston Cole, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, said the investment in the property will be a boon to not only conservation and preservation efforts but also for tourism.

“Today, everybody in Wisconsin is a winner,” Cole said. “This is a big day for the State of Wisconsin, the county, those who live here and those who visit. I couldn’t be any more excited ... to announce this pivotal acquisition.”

He noted that natural areas like Cedar Gorge are becoming more difficult to find, and added that they are essential to everyday life — something many people discovered during the pandemic.

“This is a big deal,” Cole said. “I think this will be another jewel along Lake Michigan that people will have access to.”

But the path to getting that jewel has been long and filled with twists and turns. Ozaukee County first began looking at the idea of preserving the property more than a decade ago.

Developer Tom Swarthout proposed a development that would have combined preservation of the environmentally sensitive areas with relatively modest housing and a vineyard and winery on what was then known as a 227-acre Cedar Vineyard subdivision. Those plans never came to fruition, and the land sat fallow.

Ultimately the Land Trust negotiated a deal with Waukesha State Bank, which owned the land, to buy the southern half of the land for preservation for $5 million — the northern half was sold to PJ and HF LLC last year — and began working in concert with Ozaukee County’s Planning and Parks Department to make that reality.

They were approaching their fundraising goal with a combination of grants and private donations when the DNR awarded the project $2.3 million from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, with the project receiving one of the highest scores ever, officials said. But when the grant went to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee for approval, an anonymous legislator objected to it, effectively stymieing the award.

Committee member Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, said he worked to obtain a compromise award of $1.6 million, but when the Land Trust didn’t immediately accept an anonymous person stepped up to say they would buy the parcel and develop it while preserving the important areas of the property. That, Stroebel said, effectively killed the grant proposal.

The Land Trust began a campaign to raise the remaining funds it needed, and in April the Ozaukee County Board was asked to contribute $1 million in ARPA funds for the acquisition. Port Mayor Ted Neitzke asked the county to use the money for infrastructure instead, and all four Port Washington representatives on the board voted against the funding, and the matter failed by a 14-10 vote — three votes short of the two-thirds needed.

The anonymous buyer then met with Neitzke and Port City Administrator Tony Brown, who agreed to keep his name private, before sending his representative to pitch his proposal to the Common Council.

Rep. Deb Andraca, D-Whitefish Bay, who has worked to obtain funding for the project, lauded the governor for giving the Land Trust the same amount of money it was supposed to receive from the stewardship program.

“Gov. Evers was willing to do today what the Joint Finance Committee refused to do,” she said. “Twenty years from now, when our children and grandchildren are walking through here, they are not going to care if it was a Republican or a Democrat in charge.”

They will just be grateful the land was  preserved, Andraca said.

Andrew Struck, the county’s director of planning and parks, said he was shocked when he heard the news a day earlier.

“We certainly weren’t expecting it,” he said. “It was a pleasant surprise. It’s long overdue but well worth it.

“Our goal now is to jump in, buy the property and start restoring it.”

One woman in the crowd asked, “Do we get to put a sold sign up now?”

The Land Trust hasn’t determined a closing date for the property, Stolp said.

The Land Trust’s option to buy the property from Waukesha State Bank for $5 million expires on Sept. 20.

“We’re working diligently to get to that point,” he said.   

Former Ozaukee County Supr. Jennifer Rothstein said Thursday was “a great day. It’s been a long time in coming.

“This project is unbelievable, but today it’s all good. This is a dream come true — that’s how significant this is. It’s preserving for the public trust in perpetuity a remarkable piece of property.”

Cole noted that the governor used the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funding to finance five conservation projects around the state.

The other projects were outdoor spaces at Milwaukee Public Schools and the acquisition of the Caroline Lake Preserve in Ashland County, a forest in the Town of Nashville and forest lands in Bayfield County.

An announcement issued by the governor’s office noted that each of the projects was approved by the DNR for funding through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and submitted to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee for approval, but they languished there.

A member of the committee objected to each of the projects, the announcement noted.

Stolp said he was shocked when he heard the governor intended to fund the project last Monday, but said he got an indication that the project had caught Evers’ eye a month earlier when he met the governor at an event and introduced himself.

“He said to me, ‘We have to help the Land Trust get Cedar Gorge,’” Stolp said. “That the governor knew of our project floored me.”

Ald. Dan Benning, president of the Port Washington Common Council, said he is pleased that the property will be preserved.

“I’m just excited to see it happen,” he said, noting the city has gone to great lengths to ensure public access to the lakefront.

“As we develop the south end of the city, we need to make sure that lakefront and bluff access remains a priority.”

The preserve will benefit the city in many ways, he said, noting it will increase property values of land around it and draw more visitors to the community.

“One could argue that having a development there would bring in more tax benefits,” he said. “Having this land open is a benefit to all citizens.”

Bob Harris, the city’s director of planning and development, concurred, saying the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs area is “pretty special. We hope it draws people not only to the nature preserve but to the city as well.”  Stroebel commended the Land Trust for raising more than $4.6 million prior to the governor’s announcement, but questioned Evers’ decision to award the entire $2.3 million when only about $550,000 was needed for the Land Trust to meet its goal.

“It would be unfortunate if the Evers administration allocated $1.75 million unnecessarily for the  purchase of the property, taking away from other causes that are important to the health and welfare of the citizens of our state,” he said.

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