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Scenic Wisconsin

An Affiliate of Scenic America

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Charlie Mitchell, editor

Woods preservation becomes part of Wauwatosa long range plan

Action by Common Council is result of citizen protests. Will it be enough to save Sanctuary Woods?

8 Feb 2019

By Charlie Mitchell

At their Dec 18 meeting, the Wauwatosa Common Council approved a long-delayed and greatly-revised Life Sciences District Master Plan for incorporation into the City of Wauwatosa Comprehensive Plan. The District includes the County Grounds which has a remnant of old-growth forest, a grove of majestic white oaks, on the 58-acre tract which has become known as Sanctuary Woods. Now included in the Plan is a provision that the Woods be re-zoned as a Conservation District. Revisions adding protection for the Woods were made by City staff working with County Grounds Coalition representatives as recently as the week before the meeting. Alderman Jason Wilke’s amendment at the meeting strengthened those protections.

Sanctuary Woods is a refreshing natural area cherished by many Wauwatosa residents, especially dog-walkers. Northeast Quadrant of the County Grounds, North of the Ronald McDonald House, it borders County Grounds Park to the north, a perfect neighbor. The Woods is the last piece of the Grounds which remains undisturbed by development.

The Life Sciences District (LSD) plan became controversial soon after it was introduced in early 2017 because, while it used language that is respectful of the natural environment in the District, it was obviously a blueprint for extensive development with high-rise residential and commercial buildings. The plan was written for City administrators by consultants with backgrounds in real estate development and construction.

The LSD plan is the latest in a history of gradual development of the County Grounds which continued essentially undeterred by periodic public protests. In the 1960s, the Grounds comprised about 1000 acres north and south of Watertown Plank Road roughly from Harwood Avenue near the village west to about Highway 100. It was largely fields and woods. Then the “county institutions” were not much more than County Hospital and a few medical and social service buildings in a park-like setting south of Watertown Plank Road. A few handsome old County buildings survived in the fields and trees north of Watertown Plank.

By 2016, the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center had grown to be a dense agglomeration of large buildings, most of them clad in plain glass, some of them 6 stories tall - a mini-city of hospitals, office buildings and parking structures, and stop lights. West of I94, the Research Park was nearly full with massive business buildings. North of Watertown Plank, there was Discovery Parkway, on a right of way gouged deeply into the sloping terrain where there used to be a savanna of oak and maple, and cliché modern buildings were sprouting along it.

When driving west out of Wauwatosa on Watertown Plank years ago you enjoyed the drive and felt good almost as if you were on a scenic route. Now you feel glad when you get through without a traffic delay.

So when the LSD plan became public, with its proposals for extensive additional development and urbanization described in the latest developer’s jargon such as “mixed-use”, and even though it had beautiful architectural renderings, it stimulated a reaction from the public which bordered on revolt.

Public meetings and hearings draw large crowds

The plan was first made public by the BizTimes which had obtained a draft of it and reported on Dec 19, 2016: ”Wauwatosa officials have been meeting with a team from Milwaukee-based engineering firm GRAEF for more than a year to develop a master plan for the area around I94 and Watertown Plank Road.” “The robust plan . . . envisions Watertown Plank Road . . . becoming a central business corridor connecting to Wauwatosa’s village area.” “The plan includes more density in the form of retail, restaurants and housing . . . allow for 6,500 housing units, 250,000 square feet office space and 70,000 square feet of retail. The estimated annual tax revenue generated by this additional development would be $40 to 50 million.

The citizenry was further informed about the County Grounds by an article by Eddee Daniel in Milwaukee Magazine Jan 09, 2017 entitled “Wauwatosa Master Plan Would Bulldoze Last Corner of County Grounds”. The subtitle read: “Must ‘Sanctuary Woods’ be sacrificed for retail and residential development?” Wonderful photographs depicted the beauty of the Woods.

The ensuing public meetings held by the City of Wauwatosa drew overflow crowds, the first two at city hall, Jan 17 and Feb 7. On March 11, Grassroots Wauwatosa staged a public forum on the future of the County Grounds featuring leaders of local environmental groups as speakers: Jim Price, Monarch Trail; Diane Dagelen, Sierra Club; Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper; Nancy Welch, alderperson; and Barb Agnew, Monarch Trail. It drew about 200 people. A third City-hosted meeting took place in the Muellner building in Hart Park on April 6, 2017, and drew about 300 people, practically all of whom spoke in opposition to the LSD plan. They told their reasons for conserving the woods: natural beauty, peace and quiet, wildlife habitat, historic preservation and increasing the market values of the properties near it.

In the continuing approval process, a series of public hearings were held at city hall by the responsible committees. People turned out in great numbers to those hearings to question the plan - the largest steady turnout of people that anybody could remember. Credit the County Grounds Coalition with its well-timed and informative messages written by chairman Peter Abbott.

On May 9, 2017, after a recommendation by the Community Affairs Committee, the Common Council voted to ask the County to re-zone the wooded County-owned land as conservancy. On May 25, Milwaukee County responded by passing a resolution in support of making the wooded area a park. In September, a zoning application was received by the City, but it was fraught with exclusions of environmental land and gerrymandering of commercial land to allow for possible development in the area to the west of the Woods where the vacant Food Services building exists.

On Oct 12, 2017, the Woods received national recognition when the Cultural Landscape Foundation included it on their annual list of threatened landscapes. It lent credibility to local conservation efforts.

Dissatisfied with the re-zoning request by the County and buoyed by the Landscape recognition, a large number of Wauwatosa residents rallied and filled the chamber of the County Parks Commission’s Oct 24 meeting in the Courthouse in Milwaukee to ask that the County re-write the re-zoning application.

After months of uncertainty, on June 20, 2018, Alderman Matt Stippich issued a request to the Community Affairs committee to modify the LSD plan to call for zoning the wooded County-owned land as a Conservation District with the Sanctuary Woods area clearly defined on a map in the plan document for the first time. It passed, to applause by the audience, in their Oct 26 meeting. On Oct 8, the Plan Commission followed suit.

On Dec 4, the Common Council held another public hearing on the LSD plan. Again the subject drew a crowd that filled the chamber, 25 of whom spoke. Almost equal numbers spoke in the categories For, Against and Comment, but all called the plan inadequate in regard to ecology and the environment. Barb Agnew re-iterated her request for specific ecological protections. City officials complied, adding wording to the plan before it was up for approval on Dec 18.

Will the city be able to fulfill the plan to conserve the Woods?

In order for Sanctuary Woods to be conserved, it needs to be re-zoned as a Conservation District, which the City has the authority to do. However, it needs the cooperation of the landowner which is Milwaukee County, especially since the land is in parcels with boundaries which do not correspond exactly to the boundaries of the Sanctuary Woods as described in the LSD plan.

The County has indicated its intention to respect the wishes of the City of Wauwatosa as laid out in the new LSD plan, according to a recent message from Peter Abbott. However, the County must deal with a proposal from a developer to do a project on a parcel to the west of the Woods which also encroaches on the Woods. This current situation is reminiscent of September 2017 before the County submitted a zoning application which was unacceptable to the City.

Let’s hope that the County remains steadfast in its respect for the LSD plan and works out a reasonable policy for potential developers of land on the borders of Sanctuary Woods, and that City officials involve themselves with the County to accomplish the objective of conserving the Woods.

Charlie Mitchell, a life-long conservationist and preservationist, is a member of the Wauwatosa Historic Preservation Commission. He attended most of the public hearings and meetings about the county grounds and spoke at several of them.

First published in Urban Milwaukee Online

Previous News

Appeal for Wisconsin Scenery

December 3, 2018

Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin has been steadily pursuing its unique objective, seeking to preserve natural and manmade beauty in our surroundings, the only environmental organization in the State of Wisconsin wholly dedicated to scenic beauty.

Why is this necessary? Because pleasant surroundings are good for our souls, our quality of life. And because in this day of rampant commercialism, some of our most precious vistas are being lost or visually polluted. Some intentionally by outdoor advertisers with big billboards, some inadvertently by large buildings inappropriately placed.

This year we fought legislation advanced by billboard companies that would have allowed non-conforming billboards along highways in scenic rural settings to be rebuilt and enlarged.

We encouraged the development and helped promote a bill (that unfortunately did not become law this year) that would regulate rehabilitation and re-use, thus foster preservation, of charming old Wisconsin barns for social events such as weddings.

We consulted with and encouraged the Dane County Board of Supervisors as they decided to order the removal of three giant billboards on the property of the Dane County Airport, and they fought and won a lawsuit by the billboard company. The resulting scenic improvement makes people proud to approach their airport.

We encourage the conservation of existing trees and planting of more trees, especially in our cities where we know - from recent studies – that simply being in the solitude of woods or tree-lined streets helps heal patients with diseases or mental problems, and even reduces crime.

CSW has been at this, along with our affiliate Scenic America, since our founding in the year 2000.

It takes financial support to carry on. Please contribute however much you are willing and able to, however much fits into your budget. Send your check to:

Scenic Wisconsin
7525 Oakhill Avenue
Wauwatosa WI 53213

Thank you and happy holidays.


Gary Goyke


State Supreme Court agrees with City of Madison on Beltline billboard

20 June 2018

The City of Madison built a bike path bridge in 2013 that partially blocks visibility of one side of the giant Adams Outdoor billboard. Photo from State Journal archives

The state Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Adams Outdoor Advertising does not have a right to visibility of its billboard. The City of Madison did not illegally take property from the billboard company by building a Beltline bridge for a bicycle path that blocked the view of a billboard, the Supreme Court said in a decision Tuesday.

In a 4-3 decision, the court agreed with a Dane County circuit judge and the 4th District Court of Appeals that Adams had failed to show that the City of Madison took property from Adams in 2013 that requires compensation when the City built the bridge for the Cannonball bike path over the beltline, just east of a Culver’s restaurant. Adams had claimed that the company is due compensation because it was deprived of “all economically beneficial use” of the west-facing side of the billboard. But the court said that the right to visibility of private property from a public road “is not a cognizable right giving rise to a protected property interest.”

Legislative Results

Relocating Non-conforming Billboards (AB594/SB496): Failed 

“Maintenance” of Non-conforming Billboards (AB595/SB495): Passed

28 Apr 2018

These two sets of bills were the latest in the never-ending endeavors of the outdoor advertising industry to allow non-conforming billboards to stand as if they were fully legal billboards. These bills were intended to allow non-conforming billboards to be used indefinitely, while it has been the intent of federal and state laws since 1972 that non-conforming billboards are to be taken down eventually. Non-conforming billboards are billboards that don’t meet the standards of the Federal Highway Beautification Act, but were built before the Act took effect and were allowed to remain in place.

AB594 would have allowed billboards that needed to be taken down because of highway expansions or improvements to be relocated elsewhere and would have overridden the authority of municipalities to regulate billboards locally, however it did not get out of the senate transportation committee. AB595, which construed renovation as maintenance of non-conforming billboards, was reduced in scope in committee, but passed the legislature to become law.

Reducing the extent of these bills was due in large part to the efforts of Scenic Wisconsin active members Gary Goyke, Vernie Smith and Charley Weeth and their testimony in committee hearings. The Transportation Department, which usually testifies on bills such as these in committee sessions, usually speaking “for information”, was conspicuously absent this year. Gary has heard knowledgeable state legislators say that AB595 will be unenforceable to a large extent because it diverges from broader state and federal laws.

Social Use of Barns (AB187) fails in assembly vote

18 Jan 2018

Despite expectations by scenic advocates that the bill would pass after the hearing by the Assembly Committee on House and Real Estate, the bill did not pass in the assembly. This bill would have relaxed building codes for historic barns so that it would be practical to upgrade them to use for social events. Many old barns with their gambrel roofs are charming sites for events such as weddings and receptions. The bill was a revision of a bill introduced earlier in the session which was a modification of a bill on this subject introduced, but did not pass, in the session ending May 2016.

Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin was the only organization registered and active in support of this bill, while the Tavern League and the Realtors Association opposed it. The Tavern League saw improved barns as competition to taverns and the Realtors argued that relaxed requirements for barns was an unfair advantage while other newer buildings for social events were held to higher standards. The League of Municipalities did not take a position on this issue.

Author Rep. Travis Tranel of Cuba City (near Platteville) in southwestern Wisconsin has said that he will try again next year. Tranel has a love of the iconic old structures which are gradually disappearing from the Wisconsin landscape.

Citizens speak for new uses of iconic old Wisconsin barns

Barn bill would make it practical to hold social events in old barns

11 Jan 2018

Rich Eggleston, Scott Becher and Gary Goyke testify in support of the barn bill in the Capitol in Madison

A delegation of three concerned citizens led by Gary Goyke testified at a hearing before the state assembly’s Committee of Housing and Real Estate to express their support for a bill that would simplify safety and fire regulations for old barns used to host social events such as wedding receptions and birthday parties. This bill not only benefits barn owners who could use their barns as a business, but preserves the iconic barns as part of the Wisconsin landscape that people enjoy. 

Citizens for a scenic Wisconsin held a board of directors meeting in a rustic barroom adjacent to an iconic old barn in Platteville in November 2016, hosted by barn owner Curt Timlin. Curt recounted how he got into the business of renting his barn for social events. He started with hosting Badger Camp for kids and having a dance in the barn. Then he hosted his snow mobile club and went on to school proms and weddings. He can accommodate 300 people in the barn which was built in 1957 and has a pointed-arch roof. He has a liquor license. 

State and local inspectors got involved after a snow mobile party in January. At first they wanted combustible materials removed, smoke detectors installed and a handicapped access ramp built, which Curt said he took steps to comply with. But then they asked for a sprinkler system, egress upgrade, and a structural study which Curt could not afford. Now he holds his events in a large tent on a concrete slab next to the barn and has built a shed to house a bar alongside the tent. The big barn is only in the background.   

Curt contacted his state representative Travis Tranel who wrote a bill AB 947 that would allow historic barns to be used for social events if they met basic safety standards, with prohibitively expensive upgrades such as sprinkler systems not required. The bill did not pass in the last legislative session, ended in May.

Travis introduced himself as a dairy farmer and said he loves old barns, they give him feelings of nostalgia. He sees old-time barns going down and it affects him as the loss of our heritage. He believes that it possible to have reasonable regulations for barns used for social events so that they are safe. He said he will press for passage of a new bill in the 2017-2018 session.

That new bill is AB187. After the hearing, it looks likely that the bill will become law soon.

Smith speaks for CSW on billboard bills

Bills would allow non-conforming billboards to be re-located, re-built

5 Dec 2017

Vernie Smith makes his case with reference to a model of a non-conforming billboard 

In public hearings of the Assembly and Senate Transportation Committees, Vernie Smith spoke on behalf of Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin in opposition to the bills. The subjects of the hearings were two bills that benefit the outdoor advertising industry - weakening the authority of municipalities to regulate billboards and weakening state rules on “non-conforming” billboards. Vernie was accompanied by fellow Scenic Wisconsin members Rich Eggleston and president Gary Goyke. They counter-acted advocacy for the bills by well-funded Outdoor Advertising executives and their lobbyist.   

The first bill, AB594/SB496, would allow reconstructing or relocating non-conforming billboards that   lose visibility or must be removed entirely because of a highway improvement project. (The intent of state and local laws for billboards that are non-conforming under the law is that they are to be eliminated eventually, not re-built, certainly not re-located.) The billboard interests argued that the bill would save the state and municipalities costs of condemnation and buy-out. Vernie argued that municipal sign and billboard ordinances have no-doubt resulted in lower, smaller and fewer billboards which are requiring less-costly buyouts.

The other bill AB595/SB495, would allow “limited” reconstruction, “temporary” enlargement and addition of safety features like catwalks to billboards that don’t conform to state law. The title of the bill is “relating to removal of outdoor advertising signs”. Vernie argued that the bill was not about removal of signs, but about preservation and perpetuation of signs. He said that the Highway Beautification Act did not intend that billboards be indefinitely rebuilt. He said adding size to billboards violated the act. He had a model of an older, non-conforming billboard in which he switched out the parts, making one “single repair” after another until all posts had been replaced and the face had been replaced. He demonstrated that it had become a completely new billboard in an illegal location – a location where a company would not be allowed to site a new billboard.

Also on this same subject, Charley Weeth has sent strongly worded emails with comprehensive arguments against these bills to the legislators who sponsored them.       

These bills were not put on the agenda of “executive sessions” of the transportation committees, effectively “tabling” them. So far, so good for scenery, although the legislative year is not over until March.  

City of Green Bay presented with award for scenic CityDeck

16 Sep 2017

Gary Goyke, president of Scenic Wisconsin, on the CityWalk holding the award certificate
while speaking for local TV cameras before presenting the award to Dan Ditscheit,
superintendent in the Green Bay Dept. of Parks.

Press release announces the award:

The Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin will be holding a Board and Membership meeting in Green Bay, Wisconsin on Saturday, September 16,2017. The meetings and award presentation will take place over the noon hour at St. Brendan’s Inn, 234 South Washington Street in downtown Green Bay.

“CSW is very happy to announce that CityDeck will receive the 2017 ‘Outstanding Public Scenic Space Award,’” stated the founder of CSW, Mr. Chuck Mitchell of Wauwatosa. The award will be presented to the Mayor of the City of Green Bay and to the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department.

The CityDeck is at the very heart of Green Bay’s Fox River waterfront. The boardwalk activates the riverfront and provides spaces for gatherings, docking, watching and playing. The sectional diversity creates a wide range of seating configurations and scenic river overlooks. Green Bay’s CityDeck is a public park and thus ensures public access at all times.

“Our Board of Directors and Membership are very impressed with this particular kind of creative and beautifully designed public space. Congratulations to the great City of Green Bay and to the Parks Department for a job well done…and we know that no marine mishap will keep it from coming back even better to serve the public,” stated Gary Goyke, president of the organization.

“Our Board of Directors and Membership are very impressed with this particular kind of creative and beautifully designed public space.  Congratulations to the great City of Green Bay and to the Parks Department for a job well done…and we know that no marine mishap will keep it from coming back even better to serve the public,” stated Gary Goyke, president of the organization.

Scenic Wisconsin supports use of historic barns for social events

Text of Gary Goyke's statement to a state senate committee:

June 1, 2017

To: Members, State Senate Committee on Insurance, Housing and Trade Senator Frank Lasee, chair

From: Gary R. Goyke, President, Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin

Re: Support for SB137 relating to Barns Used for Special Events

"Chairman Lasee, thank you for holding this public hearing, and thank you and the members of the committee for giving us this opportunity to speak with you today.

Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin is a proud affiliate of Scenic America. In fulfillment of our mission statement, we are actively involved in the promotion and growth of the Rustic Road program in our state, we actively support the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Scenic Byway system, we believe in the preservation efforts for rural historic barns, we support efforts to enhance agricultural tourism and often join the battle to fight the proliferation of billboards along our state and Interstate highway thoroughfares.

Our board of directors went to Platteville to interview several people involved in the issues included in bill SB137. We met with local news media and with the Assembly author of the bill Travis Tranel. I am happy to say that our board voted unanimously to support this legislation. Iconic old barns can be put to good use as venues for social events. I am leaving the committee a book on barns that we use to promote rustic cultural preservation and rural tourism.

We take this subject very seriously and urge the committee to adopt the bill.

Thank you for your time and attention."

Judge orders billboards in Madison removed

The Wisconsin State Journal tells the story

29 Dec 2016

Subject of op-ed article by Rich Eggleston below

A Dane County judge on Thursday declined to stop Dane County from ordering the removal of three billboards along Aberg Avenue. Photo by John Hart, State Journal

A Dane County judge on Thursday declined a request by a billboard advertising firm to delay the removal of three North Side billboards while it appeals a decision in which the judge threw out its open meetings lawsuit against Dane County.

Circuit Judge Frank Remington said he didn’t believe that Adams Outdoor Advertising was likely to succeed in its appeal of Remington’s decision, made last month.

In that ruling, Remingtonfound insufficient evidence that Dane County Board members had improperly decided against renewing a lease of county land along Aberg Avenue where the billboards have stood since 1966.

In August, Adams sued the Dane County Board over the 18-16 decision in April not to renew the lease.

Adams alleged that Sup. Paul Rusk violated the state open meetings law and its prohibition against 'walking quorums' by improperly lining up votes against the lease renewal.

Adams wanted Remington to order that the board take another vote on the lease.

On Thursday, soon after Remington’s decision not to grant a stay that would keep the billboards up, Adams filed an appeal with the state 4th District Court of Appeals, seeking an immediate review.

Under its contract with Dane County, which expires Saturday, Adams would have 10 days to remove the billboards.

Adams’ lawyer, Brian Potts, argued that once the billboards are removed, it would be impossible to restore them should the appeals court rule in Adams’ favor.

But Remington called Adams’ chances of succeeding in its appeal 'slim at best.'

--Ed Treleven, Wisconsin State Journal

Read more coverage in the Wisconsin State Journal here

Rich Eggleston: Billboards shouldn't be forever

Op-ed article makes the case against big signs

18 Sep 2016

Adams Outdoor Advertising has fought in court over billboards, including this one along Aberg Avenue on Madison's North Side. Photo by John Hart, State Journal 

FITCHBURG — If you have an eye sore you go to an ophthalmologist, unless your eyesore is a billboard. Then, if you’re Adams Outdoor Advertising Co., you go to a lawyer.

Adams’ lawyers’ efforts to bend the law to their will are not always successful, but they keep trying. In February, Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess rejected Adams’ claim that partly obstructing the view of one of its billboards with an overpass on Madison’s busy Beltline in Fitchburg was not an unlawful taking of private property, as Adams had contended.

Adams avoided lawsuits when it settled longstanding disputes with the city of Madison in 2011, but the settlements came at a cost to the public. While Adams agreed to remove two eyesores — one at Union Corners and the other at the Villager Shopping Center on the South Side — it was given the right to apply for five new billboards, as though Madison’s ban on new billboards didn’t exist. This is an example of how valuable billboards are — to the billboard companies.

Adams wanted to preserve that billboard infrastructure despite opposition by pesky neighbors, so it went to court to challenge the County Board’s 18-16 vote, taken on April 7, against renewing a lease for a billboard on county land on Aberg Avenue near the Dane County Regional Airport.

The real question isn’t the legal technicality on which Adams wants to hang its hat, or its convoluted view of its rights. It’s whether signing a billboard lease is like entering into a marriage contract “until death do us part.” According to the law unto Adams, once you’ve signed that lease, there may be no such thing as a divorce.

In fact, we’ve always had the right to view the natural landscape, and billboard companies have never had the right to impose their message between you and that natural landscape.

It all brings to mind the doggerel penned by Ogden Nash (with apologies to Joyce Kilmer):

“I think that I shall never see/a billboard lovely as a tree./Perhaps, unless the billboards fall/I’ll never see a tree at all.”

Far-fetched? Not in Wisconsin, where state law gives billboard companies the right to cut trees on public property if they interfere with passing motorists’ view of a billboard.

Eggleston, of Fitchburg, is a member of the board of directors of Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin.

Rich Eggleston

A Small Band of Determined Citizens Can Make a Big Change

Digital Billboards - Coming In Great Numbers - Soon

It's time to be prepared for an onslaught of lobbyists and executives that will soon arrive in our communities across Wisconsin. They will meet with your elected representatives and attempt to negotiate "deals"to convert your traditional billboards into digital. They will frequently attempt to rush what appear to be minor ordinance changes through the process without time for citizen input or for the the officials to start asking questions. These tactics can result in the destruction of local sign codes. Be prepared for them.

Learn about digital billboards here. Take action by emailing your elected state representatives. Go to Legislative Website for email addresses and convenient message forms.

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CSW is dedicated to scenic conservation in our state. We are actively engaged in supporting legislation to control billboards. This means fighting the status quo and it is not a simple undertaking. We can use your help and if you would like a membership, please visit our membership page by clicking here.