PRESS EDITORIAL: A public nature preserve ambushed by hidden, nameless forces

Once upon a time, a wealthy man who loved nature swooped in to save the cedar forests, clay bluffs and beaches of lakeshore land that was left vulnerable when politicians acting in secret sabotaged funding for a nature preserve. The flora and fauna of the beautiful place lived happily ever after.

That, needless to say, is a fairy tale. Yet the people of Ozaukee County and surrounding area who support the creation of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve, the financial contributors who helped fund it and the land trust and county planners who spent years planning it are being asked to believe it will come true if the land is sold to the developer who wrote the tale.      

 It was written in a letter to City of Port Washington and Ozaukee County officials made public last week from someone self-described as a “successful businessperson” who wants to buy the land and develop it “in an environmentally sensitive way.”

In assurance of the want-to-be buyer’s bona fides as a champion of the environment, the letter went on: “Having spent a large portion of my life outdoors, I have a very real appreciation for nature, the environment and the need to protect it over time.”

The buyer’s idea of protecting the Cedar Gorge land apparently is to turn much of it into a subdivision.

Fairy tales are not meant to be taken seriously, and this one further lacks credibility because its author would not reveal his name. The letter was anonymous, signed “Interested Buyer.”

That fits a pattern.

The state grant approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for the Cedar Gorge preserve was scuttled by anonymous influencers involved with the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance. A lobbyist hired by “Interested Buyer” weighed in with the committee in opposition to the grant.

Besides the lobbyist, “Interested Buyer” is represented by a high-profile lawyer best known for his efforts to get an entertainer, rapper Kanye West, on the 2020 ballot in Wisconsin as a candidate for president of the United States.

On behalf of his current, nameless client, the attorney wrote a letter aimed at discouraging county officials from approving a proposed county contribution to the preserve.        

The county does not need any guidance from an anonymous developer bent on preventing the creation of a nature preserve that will be a county park. On Monday, the County Board’s Executive Committee made that clear by recommending approval by the full board of a $l million grant for Cedar Gorge.

The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust has been working with the county to create the preserve on 131 acres of land along Highway C and has raised more than $1 million in private donations toward the $5 million needed to buy the land.

State Rep. Rob Brooks, who has been in contact with the developer who wants to buy the preserve land, said “Interested Buyer” did not act sooner because now “the timing is right.”

Really? The fact is, the timing is all wrong. The land had been on the market for more than a decade, waiting for a developer to buy it, before the OWLT and the county crafted a plan to protect its remarkable natural features, including three-fourths of a mile of Lake Michigan beach, and make them accessible to the public in perpetuity.

Negotiations for an option to purchase the land at a below-market price were completed, well documented grant applications were written and hundreds of people responded to the OWLT’s call to help finance the preserve. The timing of the developer’s move throws a wrench into the gears of a project painstakingly managed to attain the laudable goal of conserving one of the largest tracts of undeveloped lakeshore land in southeast Wisconsin for the benefit of the public.

Adjoining city land is already owned by “Interested Buyer” and is slated for development. The anonymous letter claims that by adding the preserve tract a “public/private partnership” involving the developer and the City of Port Washington can “protect the bluffs and gorge” while benefitting local business and generating tax revenue.

If that sounds like more from a fairy tale, it’s because the city, which annexed the land now earmarked for the preserve more than two decades ago, has proven to be no match for developers when it comes to protecting lakeshore land. Two lakefront parcels once owned by the people of Port Washington, the north slip harbor lot and the acres overlooking the lake gifted to the city by We Energies, are now the sites for a brewpub and a subdivision whose dominant feature will be a sprawling institutional building.

The true Cedar Gorge story is     that a worthy land conservation plan embraced by the public and local government was threatened by state politicians acting in secret and a nameless developer seeking to profit from the natural beauty of the land.

The story deserves a happy ending: The successful creation of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve.

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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
(262) 284-3494
 

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