Subdivision, bluff nature preserve deal is in doubt

One of two $1 million grants for Cedar Vineyard project in Port set to expire

INSTEAD OF “SOLD” signs, new “For Sale” signs were recently placed along the site of the proposed Cedar Vineyard subdivision on Port Washington’s southeast side by the property owner, Waukesha State Bank. A $1 million grant that is to go toward the purchase of a 101-acre nature preserve on the property is set to expire in the coming weeks. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
Ozaukee Press staff

One of two $1 million grants needed to purchase a 101-acre nature preserve in the proposed Cedar Vineyard subdivision on Port Washington’s southeast side is set to expire next week, putting in doubt a carefully crafted plan that has been in the works since 2015.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program grant to Ozaukee County is set to expire on Dec. 31, according to the State Department of Administration.

But Andrew Struck, the county’s director of planning and parks, said he is working with the state to extend the grant as negotiations continue on the project.

“If there is not written, tangible progress toward closing (on the purchase of the property) early in the new year, they’ve said they will have to revisit it,” he said. “They need to see progress.

“They’re saying we’re giving you a very short time frame. They have not said the grant is going to expire on such and such a date.”

Right now, Struck said, negotiations between prospective buyer Tom Swarthout of the Highview Group and property owner Waukesha State Bank are at an impasse.

Swarthout’s offer to purchase the property has not been approved by the bank, which is seeking additional documentation, Struck said. But Swarthout said he needs an accepted offer to purchase in order to obtain the documents, he said.

“We’ve been in a stalemate since the offer to purchase was submitted,” Struck said. “I’m trying to get the parties to come to terms. I think there is a middle ground — it’s just a question of where it is.

“Hopefully, we’ll get beyond this. It does seem that the terms are acceptable.”

The offer to purchase, Struck said, “is key.”

“There’s a little bit of time but not much. I’m hoping something will move us off the dime,” he said.

Asked the odds of the deal coming through, Struck said, “I wish I had a crystal ball. We’re fully invested in our piece. It’s important to the county, to its residents. I’m hoping for the best so we can truly make this a public-private partnership.”

Waukesha State Bank does not have an acceptable offer to purchase the property and is continuing to market it, said Keith Van De Laarschot, a commercial banker with the bank.

“It’s not under contract,” he said. “There was an offer in the last couple weeks that was not acceptable to the bank. We were hoping he (Swarthout) would be able to put it together. We thought it was good for the city, for the county and for the taxpayers.

“We are marketing the property. We’re hoping to find someone with an equally good project.”

Swarthout declined to comment.

The grant was awarded by the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program in October 2016 and an extension approved in March 2018 that requires the county to complete the property acquisition by Dec. 31, said John Dipko, communications director for the Department of Administration.

If the county does not meet the deadline, the funding will go back to NOAA to allocate to other projects, Dipko said, noting the money needs to be spent by September 2019.

The Dec. 31 deadline gives NOAA enough time to identify and fund other projects before the funding expires entirely, he said.

“We understand there were circumstances beyond the county’s control that impacted the county’s ability to complete the acquisition by 12/31, but we are unable to approve any further extensions given the time frame under which NOAA is working,” Dipko said in an email.

The NOAA grant is one of two awarded for the purchase of the 101-acre sanctuary in a complex deal that paves the way for the Cedar Vineyard subdivision.

The other grant is a stewardship grant awarded to the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

That grant has been extended and remains in place, Land Trust Executive Director Tom Stolp said.

“We have ample time,” he said. “The DNR has been very accommodating knowing this is a complex transaction.

“Hopefully we’ll work toward a closing in the next couple weeks. We’re doing everything we can to see it happen. It’s a complex deal — that’s the long and the short of it.”

The grant funds would be used to buy the most environmentally sensitive areas of the Cedar Vineyard property, including Cedar Gorge.

The preserve is a key component of the Cedar Vineyard development, which would include 82 half-acre lots surrounded by a vineyard along Highway C and a winery on the west side of Highway C south of Stonecroft Drive.

The plan is to have the Highview Group purchase the entire 227-acre parcel from Waukesha State Bank and almost immediately sell the preserve land to the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust.

The Land Trust would then transfer the preserve to Ozaukee County, which would hold it in perpetuity.

Port Washington City Administrator Mark Grams said the city has been doing what it can to see the deal through but that it remains in the hands of Swarthout and the bank.

But, he cautioned, if the deal falls apart, so too does the city’s tax incremental financing district for the property. TIF funding was expected to be used to extend utilities to the property — another key to the plan.

“I’ve talked to the bank about it,” he said. “Stay tuned.”

Even if the Cedar Vineyard proposal falls apart, Stolp said, the Land Trust is intent on acquiring and preserving the property.

“If this doesn’t come together, we’d be disappointed,” he said. “But if we can’t get the parties together, we’ll still be ready to go. Our interest, our fervor, hasn’t waned. I think we’d pursue any means possible to attain the parcel if this doesn’t go through.

“We just want to see the land protected.”


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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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