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Wauwatosa will work to clean up problem property

Foreclosure pending on former dry cleaning business on Wauwatosa Avenue

A former dry cleaning business at 2578 N. Wauwatosa Avenue shows signs of years of neglect.

A former dry cleaning business at 2578 N. Wauwatosa Avenue shows signs of years of neglect. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Nov. 20, 2013

The former home of a dry cleaning business at the corner of Wauwatosa Avenue and West Clarke Street is the subject of a foreclosure proceeding filed by Milwaukee County, with a hearing scheduled for next month.

The property at 2578 Wauwatosa Ave. shows obvious signs of neglect, and has not been operated as a business for years. Owner Ronald Collision of Wauwatosa owes about $241,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties, accumulated over 20 years, said county accountant Cathy Hollers.

Collison, 71, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in August. The filing does not clear him of the property tax obligations on the property, said City Attorney Alan Kesner.

Following foreclosure, the county would take possession of the property and expects to convey it to the city for site remediation and redevelopment, a plan that was approved last week by the Community Development Authority, which will act as owner of the property.

Complications

The possible redevelopment of the site is complicated by likely soil contamination from the dumping of dry-cleaning solvents — much of it by a previous owner — and Collison's continued ownership of a garage and parking area related to the property, but legally a separate parcel. Collison has paid back taxes on that piece, protecting it from foreclosure.

"I have very strong opinions on this property," 5th District Alderman Joel Tilleson said at the CDA meeting last week. "Not only is it in my aldermanic district, but it's two blocks away from my personal house. It is an eyesore, and it is the number one thing I get phone calls about from people in my district." He said it has been a problem for about 15 years.

The property was the site of dry cleaning business as early as the mid 1940s, and was purchased by Collison in 1974, according to court documents. He operated it as a dry cleaning business until 1993, and after that it was a drop-off site for clothing that he cleaned at another location, the documents say.

A change in state law

Collison, in an interview, said his problems began with the enactment of state Spill Laws in 1978, which required an owner of a property to clean up any contaminants.

The effect of the law was to reduce the value of property that was not cleaned up, and a lower property value would typically result in lower property taxes. But Wauwatosa requires the completion of an environmental site assessment on a contaminated property before it is revalued.

Collison said he did not pursue such an assessment because it would have resulted in a referral to the state Department of Natural Resources, which would have demanded a cleanup paid for by Collison.

Without environmental testing, the city continued to tax the site as if the property was not contaminated.

"People back in the '70s treated ... contaminated solvents a lot differently than they do now," Collison said. "They would, without reservation, just dump them on the lawn, on the ground."

Collison said he began his work life as an engineer and worked for Rockwell.

"I bought the dry cleaners for the sole purpose of developing an independence so I could do other things in the engineering field, and then the legal battle came up ... and brought me to a dead stop," he said. "It destroys everything you've got."

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