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The Estabrook Dam Should be Removed but the Current Removal Plan Sets a Terrible Precedent

Issue of the Week

Oct. 25, 2016
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estabrookdam
Photo Credit www.milwaukeenotebook.com

We’ll be clear up front: We believe that the Estabrook Dam should be torn down. We agree with the area’s major environmental groups that it’s best for taxpayers and the environment to have a free-flowing Milwaukee River. Actually, there a very few, if any, reasonable arguments not to tear it down.

That said, we certainly don’t like the plan hatched to tear down the dam and we believe it sets a dangerous precedent for future sales of county-owned land that’s currently zoned as park land and enjoyed by the public.

To recap: The Estabrook Dam is under order to be repaired or torn down. The Milwaukee County Board went on record in 2009 to repair the dam and allocated funding for it. Yet the dam wasn’t repaired. Years later, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele inserted a line in his proposed 2015 budget to remove the dam. After a series of votes and procedural maneuvering, supervisors ultimately voted to repair the dam. As it stands now, the official county policy is to repair the dam and add a fish passage. Money has been set aside to repair it, but the Abele administration has said it’s not enough and hasn’t issued a contract for the work.

In public, the Abele administration has pursued this policy to repair the dam. The Department of Natural Resources even gave its OK to the plan. But as we know now, in secret the Abele administration was pursuing a plan to tear down the dam—contrary to stated county policy and his own administration’s public position. 

So how does Abele plan to get around the county board? 

The Abele plan is to get the City of Milwaukee to rezone the parcel with the dam from park land to institutional land. (That is necessary since the county executive cannot just sell off county park land without the county board’s approval, but he can sell off other non-park land without board approval.) Then that parcel will be sold to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD) for $1. Then the city will rezone the parcel back to park land and it’ll go back to county ownership after MMSD has torn down the dam. The plan will probably work despite possible court challenges, but the process is a disgrace for those who believe in transparent and straightforward government. 

The Abele administration hatched the plan without notifying the county board or the public, although they had a detailed plan to move this process forward, according to documents the Shepherd has received via an open records request. 

Abele asserts that he’s able to raze the dam because he was given wide-ranging new powers over land sales in the most recent state budget. As you may remember, Abele ally state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) slipped an Abele-requested, last-minute amendment into the state budget that gives Abele the power to sell off county-owned land in secret with just the signature of one other person. He only needs to get the OK of the county board if he wants to sell land that is zoned as park land, according to the new state law. When that happens, there will be a fully transparent sales process and legislative hearings that are open to the public, in contrast to this current scheme. Interestingly, now Darling is saying that the amendment that she slipped into the budget late one evening was not intended for something like this act. Apparently the wealthy upstream homeowners have complained to her. 

Also there is one area that might provide some legal issues for the current scheme: The state law seems to freeze in place the land over which the county board has jurisdiction, and the land that Abele can sell in private with just one other signature. If it’s zoned park land on or after July 14, 2015, the date this law went into effect, then some argue that the county board must be involved in any sale. The land in the Estabrook Dam deal has been zoned park land for decades, including in July 2015. The city is deliberating changing the parcel’s zoning.

So does Abele have the power to do an end-run around the county board and get the zoning changed and sell it to MMSD on his own, even though the land was zoned as park land when the law was passed? This almost definitely will end up in court.

The Estabrook Dam should definitely be removed. Other than enhancing the property values of those living upstream, there is absolutely no rational or fair reason to maintain and repair the dam. It will cost taxpayers much more to repair it and there are environmental advantages to removing the dam. However, if Abele gets away with this zoning switch, where will it end? Will this create a very dangerous precedent where Abele will find “flexible” local officials around the county willing to sign off on rezoning priceless parcels of park land so they can be sold to developers for “condos in the park”? Do those of us who love parks like Lake Park, Brown Deer Park, Grant Park, Pere Marquette Park, Riverside Park or South Shore Park, for example, have to worry about their unscrupulous county executive selling off parts of our parks to his wealthy cronies for private homes or condo developments?

Actually, this all goes back to the amendment to the state budget that Sen. Alberta Darling literally slipped into the budget late in the evening at the request of Chris Abele. Republicans used to stand for local control, now they are trying to micromanage Milwaukee and are unfortunately doing a very poor job of it.  

This has become a very messy situation. If the county executive gets his way the dam will come down and bad precedent will have been set. If the county board’s current position prevails, an apparently unpopular policy will go into place. 

Good government and true leadership would have the two parties work this out so that one side does not feel that they were totally disenfranchised with the other side walking away with a total victory and a pool of blood on the floor.

In addition, we need the Republicans in the Legislature to act as they talk and restore local control to Milwaukee County and re-establish honest checks and balances to county government by restoring the power of the county board.

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