Key nature preserve funding now in question

Land Trust agrees to reduction of $2.3M grant but state stewardship funding inexplicably stuck in committee

OZAUKEE WASHINGTON LAND TRUST Executive Director Tom Stolp stood at the proposed Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust finds itself in an untenable position as it works to obtain a Knowles-Nelson stewardship grant from the state to help acquire the 131-acre Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs property on Port Washington’s far southeast side.

Faced with opposition from one legislator that threatened the $2.3 million grant that had been approved by the Department of Natural Resources, the Land Trust negotiated with the state and agreed to a significantly smaller grant of $1.6 million, Executive Director Tom Stolp said.

But the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance, which must sign off on the grant, has refused to set a hearing to consider the funding, Stolp said.

“We have in good faith accepted graciously this huge reduction and now the Joint  Finance Committee won’t do anything,” Stolp said. “Why?”

Rick Fox, president of the Land Trust’s board of directors, said there is a fear that the committee’s inaction could cost the nonprofit organization funding that is needed to buy the land, which is owned by Waukesha State Bank.

“We have seen other good conservation projects in the State of Wisconsin meet this fate, where the Joint Committee on Finance doesn’t want a project to succeed and will sleep on a project and simply run out the clock,” he said.

Sen. Duey Stroebel of the Town of Cedarburg, a member of the Joint Committee on Finance, did not respond to a call and email seeking comment.

The DNR approved the Land Trust’s $2.3 million grant last June, and the grant was then forwarded to the Joint Committee on Finance for review. On the last day lawmakers could raise concerns, an anonymous legislator objected to the grant.

Fox said the legislator let the Land Trust know through local lawmakers that they did not agree with the negotiated purchase price or the real estate appraisals for the property and wanted the Land Trust to “take a haircut” on the grant amount.

The Land Trust’s real estate appraisal set the value of the land at $7.8 million, and the State of Wisconsin estimated its value at $5.9 million, significantly higher than the $5 million purchase price.

The price is also significantly less per acre than the amount paid last year for a parcel directly north of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs land.

Fox said that while the Land Trust believes the legislator’s rationale for objecting was seriously flawed, it agreed to negotiate the award amount because the lawmaker held all the negotiating power.

The Land Trust agreed to a smaller grant and raised an additional $300,000 in donations to make up the difference.

But that wasn’t enough, Fox said, noting lawmakers told the Land Trust that the most that would be approved was $1.6 million.

“As galling as it was to have our thoroughly vetted and transparently awarded grant arbitrarily reduced ... we again chose the pragmatic path and agreed to accept a $1.6 million grant.”

Despite that, he said, the Joint Committee on Finance has refused to schedule a hearing to approve the grant.

The Land Trust has until fall to purchase  the property, and Stolp said the organization is committed to making that happen, especially considering the amount of support the project has received from the community.

“We are so close with this bit of funding,” he said, referring to the grant. “We’re going to work like heck to meet it (the deadline).”

The Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs property is an important piece of land containing three-quarters of a mile of Lake Michigan shoreline and bluffs as well as the Cedar Heights Gorge and surrounding wetlands and white cedar woods. 

The area is also an important habitat for wildlife and birds along the Lake Michigan flyway.

Once the land is acquired, the Land Trust plans to place a conservation easement on the property, then turn it over to Ozaukee County, which will be in charge of restoring the land and maintaining it for public use.

Land Trust officials also hope to link it to the nearby Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton.


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Ozaukee Press

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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