PRESS EDITORIAL: Bad-faith state politics threaten nature in Ozaukee County

The all-powerful Joint Committee on Finance, dominated by the Republican majority of the Wisconsin Legislature, is known to be hostile to the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund, but what it is doing to prevent the fund from enabling the creation of an Ozaukee County nature preserve goes beyond hostility. It is an underhanded, stab-in-the-back example of bad-faith manipulation of government power.

The committee first demanded a drastic cut in the amount of funding for the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve that had been approved by the Department of Natural Resources. The demand was met, but the committee has refused to act on approving the reduced grant. There has been no explanation, but now indications are the funding is being blocked at the behest of a lobbyist representing private interests eyeing the nature preserve land.

The land earmarked for the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve was available to be purchased by developers for more than two decades.

It was annexed to the City of Port Washington to accommodate a developer whose extravagant plans dissolved into bankruptcy. Creditors that took over the lakeshore land marketed it aggressively, including advertising it in the Wall Street Journal and other national media outlets. There were no takers.

When a potential buyer of some of the land appeared with a proposal to create a nature-oriented subdivision that would include a vineyard and winery, Port Washington officials did everything they could think of to support him. For good measure, the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust worked with the would-be developer and the city to create an adjacent nature preserve, adding to the appeal of the development. Despite numerous attempts at resuscitation, the project died. “For sale” signs remained in place.

Then the Land Trust (OWLT) stepped up with what would be the first viable land-use plan for a portion of the vast tract—a nature preserve that would benefit both the public and the environment. Named after the lake bluffs and cedar forest that distinguish the site, the 131-acre preserve would include three-quarters of a mile of Lake Michigan shoreline.

The OWLT negotiated a below-market-value price for the purchase of the property from the bank that owns it, and in partnership with Ozaukee County created a plan for a preserve that would not only protect environmentally valuable land, but make it accessible to a public that clearly yearns for opportunities to experience nature. The Cedar Gorge preserve would share terrain with the nearby Lions Den Gorge, a nature area that is also the result of an OWLT-Ozaukee County partnership and is the county’s most popular park, often overwhelmed with visitors attracted by its remarkable vistas, trails, beaches, flora and fauna.

Hundreds of residents made contributions small and large to help cover more than half of the $5 million Cedar Gorge purchase price, and the OWLT and Ozaukee County submitted a Stewardship grant application so well documented that the DNR overseers of the fund approved a $2.3 million grant.

Overruling the DNR, the Joint Finance Committee threatened to withhold the funds unless the OWLT agreed to a reduced grant of $1.6 million. To save the preserve, the Land Trust went along with the legislators’ demand. And then—betrayal to please a lobbyist.

Committee members have to be ethically comatose to fail to see the many ways in which this is wrong. The Cedar Gorge land needs protection from development. There is plenty of land around it to enrich developers. The public wants the preserve. No local government entity is insisting the land remain on its tax rolls; on the contrary, the Ozaukee County Board and City of Port Washington officials support the preserve.

What’s more, the hypocrisy of some of the committee members is breathtaking. These are legislators who mouth platitudes about the sanctity of local government control, yet are willing to wield the hammer of the state to deprive local government and citizens of Ozaukee County of the means to create a desirable public amenity.

Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs has at least one ally among the finance committee majority membership. Sen. Duey Stroebel of Cedarburg says he supports approval of the $1.6 million grant.

Stroebel’s admirable stance is a measure of how misguided the finance committee is in its crude political obstruction of a worthy land preservation project, for in the past he has been one of the legislators calling for cutting back Knowles Nelson Stewardship funding.     

It would be a welcome irony if a critic of state land conservation efforts would prove to be influential in saving Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs. Many in Stroebel’s home county are counting on him to make that happen.

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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
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