PRESS EDITORIAL: A saga of ambush, betrayal, rescue and triumph

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” the title of a famed 1960s western movie, could be borrowed to characterize the saga of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve.

The planned nature preserve was the “good” by any measure: pristine lakeshore land; a plan to conserve it a decade in the making by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and the Ozaukee County Planning and Parks Department; strong public support; vigorous fundraising; a project so perfectly in line with state land stewardship goals that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approved a $2.3 million grant for Cedar Gorge.

Then the “bad” and the “ugly” appeared in the form of political scheming behind closed state Legislature doors, conniving with a developer who coveted the land, betrayal by local politicians and the sabotage of the DNR grant.

It turned out, in satisfying and just irony, that the craven forces arrayed against the nature preserve  actually contributed to its survival by motivating citizens, donors and enlightened elected officials to rally to the nature preserve’s support. Gov. Tony Evers made that survival certain last week when he replaced the blocked DNR grant with $2.3 million in federal funds.

The grant awarded by the DNR was the linchpin to protecting the cedar forest, dramatic bluffs and Lake Michigan beach of the planned nature preserve as a county park. All that was needed for the funds to go to the project was the Joint Finance Committee’s approval, which had been virtually automatic for past grants from the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund.

But the grant was effectively canceled when a single member of the committee objected to it, anonymously and without public scrutiny or announcement.          

State Sen. Duey Stroebel of Cedarburg proposed reducing the stewardship grant to $1.6 million. This was a blow to the land trust’s agreement to purchase the Cedar Gorge land from a bank for $5 million, but worse was to come. The pared grant was merely an illusion that distracted attention from the fact that members of the Republican majority of the committee were determined to eliminate the DNR grant altogether.

This came to pass when the chairmen of the committee refused to hold a hearing as required by state statute. None of this occurred in the public view. No hearing on the grant was ever held, and the grant was dead.

  The identity of the legislator who blackballed the grant still has not been revealed, but it is known that a lobbyist representing a developer with designs on the Cedar Gorge property as a subdivision was involved in the decision.

The back-room sabotage of the grant drew a swift response of both outrage and generosity. Contributions flowed into the Land Trust, many of them modest but intended as sincere statements of support by individuals and families who understood the importance of the nature center to the people of Ozaukee County. In Grafton, children set up a lemonade stand to raise money for Cedar Gorge. The county parks director made a circuit of Lake Michigan on a bicycle as a fundraiser for the preserve. A group of Ozaukee County Board members drafted a resolution to use some of the county’s federal pandemic relief funds to provide a $1 million grant for the preserve.

None of this deterred the enemies of Cedar Gorge. At the behest of the anonymous developer, State Rep. Rob Brooks of Saukville distributed a letter written by the developer’s lobbyist to news organizations. The letter gave no hint of the developer’s identity but promised a windfall in tax revenue to the City of Port Washington and, the writer having apparently consulted Angie’s List or a similar directory of contractors, listed the names of local businesses the developer’s subdivision would allegedly enrich.

It was a clumsy, transparently self-serving attempt to enlist government officials to pave the way for a business to profit from land that was meant to be preserved in the public domain. Even so, a group of five that might be called the County Board’s Port Washington boys club—the four supervisors representing the city and town, Dave Larson, Rick Nelson, Dan Becker and Lee Schlenvogt, along with Port Washington Mayor Ted Neitzke as an ex officio member—bought into it, and were able to defeat the county grant.

Insult followed injury when the mayor and city administrator of Port Washington met secretly with the anonymous developer but refused to reveal his identity or details of his plans to the public or its representatives on the Common Council.

It will be remembered that one elected state representative was in sync with the broad public support for the preserve. State Rep. Deb Andraca, who represents parts of southern Ozaukee County, encouraged the governor to use some of the state’s ample reserve of pandemic relief money to ensure the success of the Cedar Gorge initiative. The result is the preservation of land that is too valuable as a 131-acre example of nature at its splendid best to be developed and an Ozaukee County park that will make that nature accessible to everyone.

In spite of the opposition of some of its elected representatives, the state funding of the preserve is a big win for the City of Port Washington. The nature preserve will be the first meaningful use of city land that has languished, spurned by buyers until the nameless developer made his sneaky appearance, since it was annexed by the city more than two decades ago. Now it will be an appealing feature of the city that will be an amenity prized by residents, an attraction to visitors, potential new residents and businesses and a spur to taxable development of nearby city land.

Put that in the “good” column.


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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.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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