There are people who believe it is possible that a balance between green space and development can be attained on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa.
One such believer is Milwaukee County Supervisor Luigi Schmitt and he said he is certain that given time evidence of the proper path for the tract of land will rise to the surface.
"Milwaukee County is not going to develop all of those areas," Schmitt said. "We are not going to go into “Sanctuary Woods” and we are not going to tear down the woods and make a building there. I think everyone probably agrees with that."
Revisiting an old fight
Schmitt should know because he has seen this fight play out before. He was elected to the board in 1999 at a time when a similar discussion was taking place regarding the region. At that time a "Save the County Grounds" movement resulted in both developable spaces and additional parkland.
The evidence of what came out of those discussions is apparent in the established regions of the grounds, such as the UWM Innovation Campus, Milwaukee County Research Park, Milwaukee Regional Medical Complex, the water detention basin and a new county park.
The current battle has brought much public discussion to the forefront, but Schmitt believes that with patience, the correct path will become clearer.
"We are all looking at where to draw these lines," Schmitt said. "Try to take a deep breath, and don’t go away from your passions, fight for what you believe in. My job is to meld those together and find answers that are reasonable."
Schmitt said that ultimately he sees 11 to 15 acres of the 60-acre total that can be developed. The rest will remain intact as woods if the city of Wauwatosa zones it as park land and prevents it from a potential sale.
Power with county executive
Under current state law, the power to sell county land is in the hands of three entities: the county executive’s office, county comptroller and an appointee from the municipality in which the land is located. For Wauwatosa, the appointee is Sue Eick, director of lending for IFF, a nonprofit lender and real estate consultant.
Before any such sale can take effect, it requires that two of the three entities sign a document certifying that they believe the sale “is in the best interests of the county,” according to the state law.
The legislation has some on the county board uneasy because it has stripped the board of a say in sales of county land. The only exception is if an area is zoned as park land it could be protected or sold, but the current zoning leaves it vulnerable to sale. The authority to zone the land on the County Grounds lies with the city of Wauwatosa.
The bottom line is that only two of the three entities are needed to sell county land — and that has some worried.
"To think (County Executive Chris Abele) is not going to embark on doing things that the public would be upset about is not correct," 16th District Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan said. "All he needs is a real estate agent or the comptroller to sign off on it."
Both Schmitt and Weishan point to the recent sale of the land to the Bucks where the new arena is being built as a prime example of what can happen.
"Abele sold the (Park East) land to the Bucks for $1 per acre," Schmitt said. "He didn’t negotiate a good deal for Milwaukee County and the Milwaukee County taxpayers, in my opinion."
Weishan pointed out that the funding for the study conducted by the city of Wauwatosa on the County Grounds was paid for in part by the county.
"The development they have planned (in the study) will completely change the character of the area," Weishan said. "We have to be very careful about how we go forward."
Attempts to talk to Abele for this story were unsuccessful, but his office said Abele is not going to sell land that could or should be protected from development.
"We absolutely wish to protect the environmental area on the grounds," Melissa Baldauff, director of communications for the Office of the Milwaukee County Executive said. "We want public input into where the lines should be drawn."
The public has been telling public officials how they feel at public forums, common council meetings and organized walks of the grounds, including one that will take place this Saturday, March 11. There have been articles written by local journalist Jim Price and Milwaukee Magazine's Eddee Daniels that have sought to galvanize and inform the public of the plans for the grounds. There's been no shortage of residents voicing their opinions on the topic.
"The county executive will not be able to ignore mass public opinion. I don’t see any need for a fast solution," Schmitt said. "I do think we needed a master plan. I am confident there are enough good people on all of these sides to come to an agreement."
Schmitt said ultimately it comes down to balancing some parts for development and securing green space. He said he sees many uses for the park land that could include some active resources like soccer and softball fields.
"How much is too much and how much is enough?" Schmitt said. "It can developed in the right way and keep a fair amount of park land."