Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (Pontiac)– Residents in a Wisconsin suburb are opposing plans to destroy and develop over a nature habitat. The targeted area boasts acres of prairie and woodland maintaining a diverse ecosystem, including large mammals and birds. Residents also are blasting the mayor for routinely dodging public scrutiny.
Wauwatosa is a mostly white Milwaukee County suburb popular, in part for its woods. These scattered areas range from small parks to forests. One plot of land however, is in the cross hairs of city officials and developers. Ultimately, a public meeting held in April revealed what the plan was, and perhaps why it was quiet. “Like high density, expensive residential”, said Wauwatosa local Baiba Rozite to Pontiac Tribune. “Expensive, for like, doctors and staff at the hospital.”
Baiba works as a land surveyor and is an avid outdoorist. She’s constantly outside, on and off the job. Doing everything from hiking to kayaking. For a time, Rozite even taught her sons botany and forestry through home schooling. Thus, chatter of bulldozing an important local habitat deeply troubled her.
Initially she thought to email Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley as a concerned citizen on February 7th, 2017. Ehley’s response, Baiba says, “made me wonder if she understood what the plan said”. The email chain was provided to Pontiac Tribune by Baiba to put the mayor’s response in better context.
In her email, Baiba urged Ehley to “think about how it will look to our children and our grandchildren if we sell out our natural spaces to developers. It does look like greed, even though you and other public officials don’t personally gain from it. Please consider the long term implications–think about the greater good”.
Ehley shot down Baiba stating: “There will be significant green space for our children and grandchildren. Our intent is to clarify the green space area which was not included in zoning changes made in 2009 when the County Ground Park was created PLUS make sure that our children and grandchildren have available to them.” “The highest quality health care center”, she wrote, “options for housing and transit/transportation AND the availability to decent wage jobs.”
To say the least, Baiba was off put by the response. As the most recent public meeting proved, these statements are also disconnected with the actual plan. Over 6500 new housing units–all highly expensive, exclusive condo’s–rest as the plan’s main deliverable. Wauwatosa’s medical facilities, Froedtert Hospital particularly, were praised in May 2017 as a “top performer”. Ehley’s statements regarding the hospital, in the context of Baiba’s email, are irrelevant.
The plan to destroy the habitat is not a job stimulus. It instead appears to be a means to attract wealthy clientele to Wauwatosa, despite nay say from officials. It’s important to note that this is what it appears to be from the perspective of the public. However, Tosa officials are sometimes so dodgy with public statements that true intent is sometimes difficult to decipher. Nevertheless, booming condemnation hasn’t yielded from the public square. What jobs, if any, or affordable housing would be made available by these ambitions are unclear? “She’s just saying these words that don’t mean anything”, Baiba exclaimed.
When speaking to developers, who attended the 300 strong meeting, Baiba noticed the same disconnect.
“I got the sense that, for them, it was like this academic exercise. Like, ‘okay, so we got paid $200,000 to come up with this plan, so we have to find all the places in this particular area that can be developed. Instead of looking across the street and saying, ‘oh yeah the mental health complex is empty now, and so what about that’? Or ‘what about all the vacant office space in the Milwaukee county research park?’”
“Right now”, Mayor Ehley said during a public meeting in February, “Wauwatosa is dealing with the fact that 38% of our landmass is non-taxable. That’s high.” Ehley then reasoned “we have to make sure we’re growing, evolving and maximizing that land value.” Ehley’s explanation before the crowd is, once again, disconnected from her email to Baiba. “To keep things the way they are right now puts this area of ravine, woods and habitat at risk”, she wrote Baiba without elaborating. To Baiba, her statements make it clear Ehley’s intentions weren’t eco-protection but making Wauwatosa even more lucrative than it already is.
Numerous attendees also pointed out an abundant supply, but slim demand for condo’s. In another part of Wauwatosa, similar expensive units have been under construction for close to two years. Building the luxury “State Street Station” units has been a crippling factor for one of Wauwatosa’s busiest roads. Home owners nearby have even noticed damage to their houses due to the constant deep ground pounding. It’s an inconvenience that people in that area were promised wouldn’t happen. Now, they’re stuck with it while the mayor refuses to meet with them. This project, alongside others, meets Wauwatosa’s demand for years to come.
Not only that but, similar to Mayor Ehley, Baiba wondered if the developers themselves had ever actually visited the area. Certain ambitions, specifically a road connecting Wauwatosa’s village–or “downtown”–to outer areas were illogical.
If you visit the area, you’ll be faced with sloping hills leading down to large water basins. From there, the hills lead back up into woodland occupied by dozens of species including deer, predatory birds, turkeys, coyotes, and snakes. Many residents, Baiba included, pondered in confusion how developers planned to build a road over this terrain. Due to these complications, Baiba recalls, road plans were eventually scrapped.
An example of of the diverse, dense habitat housed within both the County Grounds (left) and Sanctuary Woods (right).
At the meeting, Baiba spoke to several of the over 300 residents who attended. She shared her experience with emailing Mayor Ehley, and her disillusionment at the reply. Residents she spoke to, interestingly, were shocked that Ehley actually replied to Baiba. According to them, numerous emails regarding the county grounds debate went unanswered.
“She’s (Mayor Ehley) there when there’s a ribbon cutting, when they opened the skate park, when they’re opening something new. And she’s in that Tosa Connection magazine and, you know, her smiling face when it’s something, like, good for the city, and new and she can say ‘oh I did this.’ But when it’s difficult, or when there’s opposition, I think, I seriously think she’s afraid of confrontation. Of course if you’re going to be a leader, you’ve got to step up to the plate. There’s definitely talk of recall, from some individuals anyway.”– Biba Rozite on Mayor Kathy Ehley
During the meeting, Baiba spoke with attendee’s wondering where the mayor was. She was then informed that Ehley was allegedly“hiding” in the back of the room. Many Wauwatosa elected officials, during the meeting, sat in the back though the mayor didn’t maintain an apparent presence.
To date, plans to bulldoze the natural habitat are stalled due to the level of public outrage. Mainly, officials and developers are brainstorming a means to zone off the land. Certain zoning’s, such as park land, enjoy more protections from development than others.
Additionally, some residents are pushing for a full eco-assessment of the effects construction could have. For now, things have quieted down without the need for large-scale protest. However, some fear these deliberations are simply a stall plan by officials.
One angle for officials hinges on giving up a smaller plot of land as a trade-off to save a much larger section of habitat. Baiba Rozite noted that this would set a “bad president”, extinguishing faith left in any future preservation deals. It’s would simply be a matter of how long the city took to chip away the area. All and all, the public’s faith in Wawatosa’s elected body has been greatly eroded by the county grounds conflict. Perhaps this, alongside the Jay Anderson shooting, will be the extra straw on the camel’s back for Mayor Ehley’s stay in office.
This article was prepared by Isiah Holmes for The Pontiac Tribune.