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Wauwatosa Residents Resist Development of Sanctuary Woods

Chris Abele's land sale power threatens owls, flying squirrels

Apr. 4, 2017
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Sanctuary Woods is a pristine woodland situated between County Grounds Park and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center (MRMC) in Wauwatosa. The land is owned by Milwaukee County and was originally preserved over 100 years ago to provide a natural retreat for patients at the nearby mental health hospital.

Beyond its therapeutic benefits, the 60-acre plot is also an exceptional natural habitat for a variety of unique animals, including owls and flying squirrels.

Despite over a century of solitude, Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley has recently expressed anxiety that the Sanctuary Woods is no longer protected land. She responded to this threat by making it her goal to “protect beloved green space.”

Ehley’s concern begs the unanswered question—who does the Sanctuary Woods need to be protected from? Surprisingly, the answer is County Executive Chris Abele.

One of the unprecedented powers granted to Abele by his predecessor and ally, Scott Walker, was the authority to sell any non-park county land with the approval of only one individual, either the elected County Comptroller or an appointee recommended by the mayor (or village president) from the municipality where the land is located. 

The County Executive lobbied for his enhanced land sale power (“power”), which was authorized without public input in a last-minute amendment to Wisconsin’s 2015 Biennial Budget.  

In January 2016, it was revealed that Abele’s broad power also enabled him to sell 43 Milwaukee County Parks and thousands of acres of additional land that was not technically zoned as a “park” by local municipalities.

Despite Abele’s authority over Milwaukee County land, City of Wauwatosa leaders can work to protect Sanctuary Woods. The Mayor could recommend a land sale representative that supports preservation. Ehley chose Susan Eick to serve a two-year term in October 2015, but Eick has not expressed an opinion on the sale.

The City Council has the ability to change the current “Special Use Medical Area” zoning for Sanctuary Woods to a “park” designation, which would shift control of the land back to the Milwaukee County Board.

After the scope of Abele’s power was revealed, the neutered County Board responded with a resolution to request that the Parks Department seek municipal rezoning of those 43 parks as well as all “agricultural land, marshland, forests, and any other parcels not currently zoned as parkland” that is “controlled by the Parks Department,” which was signed by the county executive on Feb. 8, 2016.

The timing was crucial because County Executive Abele was in the midst of a reelection campaign against State Senator Chris Larson, who won their primary election on Feb. 16, 2016, despite being severely outspent, by making park investments the centerpiece of his campaign.

Abele’s staff responded with indignation to Larson’s criticism that the County Executive intended to sell county parks. Communications Director Melissa Baldauff stated that the County Executive “has no current or future plans to sell parkland,” and that “[a]ny such claim would go entirely against his past record during his time as county executive to acquire and protect more parkland.”

No such promise was made to protect county forests, and for good reason—Abele has played an instrumental role in the plan to develop Sanctuary Woods since 2015.

In December 2015, the Wauwatosa City Council approved a no-bid contract with Graef, Abele’s favored design firm, which has recently been awarded contracts to plan the future of the Mitchell Park Domes, Lake Park’s Ravine Road Bridge, and the monumental Lakefront Gateway project.

The City’s stated goal was to create a Life Sciences District Master Plan (“Plan”) covering a 1,200-acre area that includes Sanctuary Woods.

Graef’s $200,000 contract was funded by a partnership between the City of Wauwatosa and Milwaukee County.

Wauwatosa’s contribution was $150,000.  A total of $50,000 was paid directly from the City. The remaining $100,000 came from tax increment financing (TIF), a common practice of funding development by utilizing the projected increase in future tax revenue that is expected to result from said development. Wisconsin Statutes limit the use of TIF funds to one-half mile outside of a designated district, here, the UWM Innovation Campus.

The timing and form of Milwaukee County’s $50,000 contribution to Graef’s contract was suspicious.

In 2016, a $25,000 payment was authorized less than one month after Abele’s reelection through a public Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement.

In contrast, the County’s 2015 payment of $25,000 was never made public.

Even Comptroller Scott Manske, Milwaukee County’s top accountant, was unaware of the payment. “We cannot find any payment to Wauwatosa for a similar amount for 2015,” he stated. In response to a recent records request, Manske received confirmation from Wauwatosa that “no payment is outstanding from Milwaukee County on this project.”

Further research revealed a November 2015 transfer in the amount of $25,000 from the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) to MRMC that represented the County’s original contribution to the Graef contract, which was confirmed by Abele’s office.

Comptroller Manske explained that the secret payment was “not a contract for the Comptroller’s office to review, and thus report on to the [County] Board.” Therefore, the public was not made aware of that transfer prior to Abele’s reelection, or ever, until now.

Milwaukee County’s hidden 2015 payment, passed through MRMC, was especially curious because it was initiated before the Wauwatosa City Council voted to approve Graef’s contract, which further demonstrates Abele’s integral role in the plan to develop Sanctuary Woods.

Graef’s plan was first revealed at a special meeting of the Wauwatosa City Council on Jan. 17, 2017, which drew hundreds of local residents who demonstrated their support for the protection of their cherished Sanctuary Woods.

The subsequent public forum on Feb. 7, 2017, also drew an overflow crowd, which erupted after Milwaukee County’s DAS Director, Teig Whaley-Smith, acknowledged for the first time that County Executive Abele’s land sale power could allow Sanctuary Woods to be sold overnight.

The Department of Administrative Services has played a key role in the land sale because Sanctuary Woods was transferred from Parks Department control to DAS in order to avoid the County Board resolution Abele signed in February 2016.

Concerned citizens will have their first opportunity for public comment about the Plan on Thursday, April 6, from 5:30-8:00 p.m. at Hart Park.Comments can also be sent directly to those with the power to sell Sanctuary Woods: County Executive Chris Abele, Comptroller Scott Manske, and Wauwatosa’s land sale representative, Susan Eick.

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