County Board rejects nature preserve rescue plan

Supervisors torpedo effort to save deal for land in Port with $1M contribution; Land Trust vows fundraising push

WITH THE STATE’S Joint Finance Committee refusing to consider a $1.6 million grant to help the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust purchase 131 acres on Port Washington’s south side, the Ozaukee County Board on Wednesday considered contributing an additional $1 million toward the $5 million price of the land. The county has already committed to spending $200,000 toward the purchase. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

The Ozaukee County Board on Wednesday turned down a request to allocate $1 million in American Rescue Act Plan funds to the purchase of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve on Port Washington’s far southeast side.

Supervisors voted 14-10 to approve the funding — a majority vote, but one that fell three votes short of the needed 17 votes to approve the allocation.

The money would have ensured the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust had the $5 million needed to purchase the 131 acres along the Lake Michigan bluff.

Tom Stolp, executive director of the Land Trust, said after the meeting that he remains confident the organization will be able to raise the needed funds for the purchase.

“We are going to make this happen,” he said, adding the vote was strictly on funding for the project. “Today’s majority vote was still an endorsement of the project.”  

The additional funding was requested after the state’s Joint Finance Committee refused to act on a proposed $1.3 million Knowles-Nelson Stewardship grant since an anonymous legislator objected to it and a private developer, who is also anonymous, said he is prepared to buy the land.

Supr. Michelle Godden of Mequon described the lack of action on the committee’s part as “funny business” and said approval of the funding would “give the proverbial middle finger” to those who blocked the funding.

“If we want public use of the land, then the public needs to step up” instead of allowing a private developer to buy the property, she added.

Port Washington Mayor Ted Neitzke sent a letter opposing the funding, saying the money should be used to support infrastructure projects at the city and county level.  

Every county supervisor representing Port Washington voted against the measure.

Supr. Dave Larson said that while he supports the purchase, the $1 million request was a big change.

“This change is significant. There are too many unknowns,” he said. “I think we owe it to our constituents to at least find out more (about the proposed anonymous developer).” 

Members of the Executive Committee on Monday recommended the county allocate the funds with only Supr. Rick Nelson of Port Washington dissenting.

At the committee meeting, almost a dozen residents spoke in favor of the county allocating the $1 million to ensure the nature preserve becomes reality.

The opportunity to preserve 131 acres of Lake Michigan bluff and shore land as well as the gorge is invaluable and shouldn’t be squandered, they said.

Former Supr. Jennifer Rothstein of Mequon said that while it’s fine for private property owners to have lake property, it’s also important “to be able to have anyone of any means be able to come and enjoy it.”

The nature preserve will be an attraction that will generate business and tourism, Rothstein noted, and it provides an opportunity to make a mark on the future.

“The things that stick with me (from her time on the County Board) are these opportunities that are going to go beyond our lifetime. There aren’t many of them,” Rothstein said. “Preserving land is a unique opportunity.

“The money you would invest is minimal compared to the joy you will bring for generations to come.”

Don Vogel of the Town of Grafton said he and his wife contributed $2,000 toward the purchase of the Cedar Gorge property.

“We obviously voted with our money because it’s that important,” he said, noting that they see the impact made by the nearby Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve.

“When we first moved here, most people didn’t know where we lived. If we told them we lived near Lion’s Den, we couldn’t believe the number of people who had been there from Milwaukee.

“This is another one-time shot that can never be undone.”

Ron Heinritz of Thiensville warned the committee, “If it slips through your fingers, it’ll be gone forever. This is a unique piece of land, it’s untouched. It deserves to be in the public trust.”

The fact that an anonymous legislator and an anonymous developer can prevent the State Joint Finance Committee from awarding a $2.3 million Knowles-Nelson stewardship grant for the project — is “just weird,” Eric Ratzlaff of Grafton said. 

The increasing number of people visiting Lion’s Den is putting pressure on that preserve, he said, and “I think it just proves the demand by not only this community but the state for what this park and what the proposed park might mean for the community.

“I strongly encourage you to move this project forward.”

Rick Fox, president of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust board of directors, told the committee that the Cedar Gorge project has broad support, noting that 524 families in the county contributed money toward the purchase of the property. 

A 2013 study revealed the impact of an amenity such as Cedar Gorge is $8 million, he added.

Supr. Bruce Ross of Mequon told the committee that it’s important that the county provide the needed funds, especially since the county and Land Trust have received $2.6 million in federal grants for the project.

“Can you imagine the chilling effect (on future grant applications) if we were to step away from this project?” he asked. “Think about the long-term effect on grantors who see us as a reliable partner.”

And, Ross noted, “there’s an urgency here. The deal begins to fall apart within the next few months (when there’s a deadline for some of these grants).”

Supr. Paul Melotik, a member of the committee, said he was “shocked” when he heard about the anonymous legislator and developer who have held this project up.

“It’s hard to believe it’s happening,” he said. “I don’t think we should have some anonymous developer-legislator telling us what we should do.

“The park is ready to go. We have this money from the federal government. I think we should go forward with this other money. It’s right to do this.”

He wouldn’t support the funding, he added, if the county weren’t in good financial shape.

Supr. Kathlyn Geracie concurred, saying, “I am angry about the situation. One person can stop this whole process when we have so many people who will benefit. I’m totally behind this getting passed.”

But Nelson said he is concerned that the county will lose out on potential tax dollars realized if the property is developed. 

“We’re all concentrating on how much this is going to cost us. We’re not looking at how much income we’re going to lose,” he said, adding that parks cost the county money.

Fox, however, noted that in return for the county’s total $1.2 million contribution to the purchase, it will be getting an asset of more than $5 million, since the Land Trust will be handing the property over to the county.

Ross added that the County Board decided years ago, when approving a previous preservation plan for the land, to forego the tax dollars that could be realized from development because of its value as public property.

“The only question before the board is how much to invest in that decision,” Ross said.

Nelson also said he has talked to people who say they know the prospective buyer and he will develop the land responsibly and in an environmentally appropriate manner.

“To put our stock in this Mr. Anonymous fellow is baffling to me,” Melotik said. “We’re talking about a fantasy story. Once he’s got the land, he can do whatever he wants with it. It’s just promises. This person is trying to make a profit here.”

Voting for the allocation were supervisors Tom Winker, Barbara Jobs, Melotik, Tom Richart, Scott Rishel, Geracie, Eric Stelter, Ross, Godden, Rob Holyoke, Henrichs, Jeanette Braverman, Catherine Frohman and Natalia Minkel-Dumit.

Voting against it were supervisors Joshua Haas, Schlenvogt, Don Clark, Nelson, Dan Becker, Larson, Tom Grabow, Marty Wolf, Shannon Whitworth and David Irish. 

Supr. Justin Strom was excused.

Ozaukee Press reporter Connor Carynski contributed to this story.


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

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


User login