Dismembering The County Grounds


By Jim Price


Readers who have lived in Wauwatosa at least 10 years should be able to recall the beginning of the Battle of the County Grounds. Then-County Executive Thomas Ament, of “pension scandal” fame, proposed selling off all of the remaining open space in the Northeast Quadrant – all the open land north of Watertown Plank Road and east of Highway 45 – to the highest bidders.

The NE Quad was the largest remaining tract of open space left in Milwaukee County. To many people it represented something like an informal nature preserve and a public commons. We gardened there on public plots; we walked our dogs there; we watched birds. It was just… there… and it was always expected to be there. Mr. Ament’s proposal was shocking.

The rebellion that followed was equally shocking to public officials. Not just Wauwatosa but much of the rest of the County rose up in protest, and “Save the County Grounds” signs went up in thousands of front yards.

Ament, though, did not back off. He had made promises to developers who wanted the land, and he would rather have stuck it to his constituents than to go back on his private promises.

However, Jim “Luigi” Schmitt, freshman supervisor for the 19th District, which includes the County Grounds, heard loud and clear from his constituents, and he negotiated a proposal to preserve 235 acres as the “County Grounds State Forest,” bought and maintained by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The proposal passed the County Board only to be vetoed by Ament. An effort to override the veto failed.

Then, the piecemeal dismemberment of the County Grounds began. Schmitt could not revive his proposal in a hostile political and economic environment even after Ament was run out of office. The state, facing budget deficits, withdrew its offer to buy the whole tract. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District demanded 100 acres for detention basins. The land was subdivided between some four different government jurisdictions: DNR, MMSD, Milwaukee County and the DOT. Alphabet soup.

The 235 contiguous acres we fought so hard to protect 10 years ago is now reduced to a little over 100 acres in two disconnected tracts. The DNR did agree to accept about 60 acres of woods north of Swan Boulevard. South of Swan is a tract of about 120 acres that was divided roughly in half between the interests of development and those of open spaces. Even then, the developers came back for more, and the development zone was increased to 66 acres, reducing the public space to 54 acres.

Even that, ultimately, was not enough for the vultures of development. Now, UWM wants to buy 89 acres, or 23 more than the public consensus allows. This would leave just over 30 acres south of Swan Boulevard, out of the original 235, in public hands. And even that would not be safe. It has not been designated as parkland, and the UWM plan would cut it off from all guaranteed public access.

Little good it would do to have even 30 acres left if you couldn’t get to it. And so, eventually, that too would probably be lost to development. Why save that which you cannot even see or touch?

The piecemeal dismemberment of the County Grounds has proceeded, not exactly as Tom Ament pictured it, in one grand fire sale, but just as surely through one after another slow but sure surgical operations. It has been a vivisection of the public body on a grand scale, carried out before our eyes even after we said “No, no, no more.”

The arms and legs were lopped off years ago. The trunk has been drawn and quartered. Only the heart remains, faintly crying, “No, no, no more.”

But that heart still beats. Ten years ago, Wauwatosa resident and businesswoman Barb Agnew, who raises butterflies and moths as a hobby, discovered that two groves of trees  flanking the old Eschweiler Buildings (and in the heart of the “economic development zone,”) harbored one of nature’s most fascinating phenomena: The trees were annual “roost sites,” in some years by the many thousands, for fall-migrating monarch butterflies, among the most beautiful and beloved of wild creatures.

Two years ago, sensing that this special place might be lost forever if someone did not act to save it, Agnew began to create The Monarch Trail of Milwaukee County. Working by herself with a weed whip and a pair of garden shears, she blazed the route of a walking trail that begins at the Milwaukee County Parks headquarters building on Watertown Plank Road.

Since then, the trail has been formalized by recognition by the Parks Department of the Friends of the Monarch Trail as an official “Friends of the Parks” organization, and many trail and habitat improvements have been made. Several Boy Scouts have set about to earn their Eagle Scout ranking through community assistance projects on the trail.

We have created trail signage, built footbridges, and planted trees and endangered species of milkweed (the only larval food source for the monarch butterfly). We have also led perhaps a thousand area residents and visitors from afar on tours of the Grounds during the monarch migration season this year.

To a person, these many, many visitors have said, “This is truly marvelous. I hope everything is being done to protect it.”

Unfortunately, that is not the case. As mentioned, the preliminary plan developed by UWM needlessly calls for destroying nearly all natural habitat, including the monarch roost sites themselves, and replacing it with roadways, parking lots, manicured lawns and plazas more suited to the mid-20th Century country club mentality than to the sustainable demands of the early 21st Century.

It does not have to be so. With a little sensitivity and imagination, UWM could easily design its engineering center within the boundaries set by popular consensus some eight years ago, and within the rational and foresighted horizons of current thinking and understanding. UWM could, in fact, make so much more of a statement in its modern engineering complex by embracing modernity and giving us a naturalized, site-sensitive, zero-carbon penalty design that might indeed become the kind of world-class model it declares it wishes to have.

Or, it could proceed with the long and now, finally, ending story of the dismemberment of the County Grounds, and with it the Public Trust.

Write, call or e-mail your county supervisor and let him or her know what you would rather see on the County Grounds: butterflies and budding green engineers, or bulldozers and a blighted, sterile landscape?


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