Tuesday, March 23, 2010

History Lesson - Woodland Park and the Aldo Leopold Nature Center

As you probably know, the Aldo Leopold Nature Center (ALNC) has proposed the expansion of its facilities in Monona partially with $500,000 in funds allocated in the current state budget (2009 Budget Bill as vetoed (Act 28)). The expansion will house a climate change classroom and interactive laboratory. 

Before the project can proceed, the lease agreement between the city and ALNC needs to be renegotiated.

Some history
This all got me thinking about the battle fought 15 years ago to first stop development of and then get the city to acquire the property that now includes Woodland Park, the ALNC, the Tellurian Teresa McGovern Center, and the Slinde development.

Former alder Jon Traver kept very complete records of that epic and loaned the whole set to me recently. All seven bound volumes. I spent the better part of this evening browsing through the volume containing the newspaper clippings from the Community Herald (predecessor to the Herald Independent), the State Journal, and the Capital Times.

A few items caught my attention. Lots of familiar names.

The battle originated when the Sand County Foundation proposed to develop about 11 acres of the land now occupied by Woodland Park. That proposal was rejected by the Monona Plan Commission chaired by - wait for it- yep, Kathy Thomas. The Plan Commission's vote was based in part on a report prepared by city planner Paul Kachelmaier.

Jon Traver led the group that opposed that development and later fought for the city acquisition of the entire 40+ acres. The group, known as Monona Greenspace Advocacy, featured a steering committee that include Mark Miller, Anne Wellman, John Haugen, Betsy Haynes, Doug Wood, and Jon Traver. Former Mayor Dick Lichtfeld was a consistent letter-writing opponent of the purchase.

[begin UPDATE]: After the original post I received an email from the former mayor that expands on his views.

"Some one told me that in your blog or what ever you said that I was against the purchase of the sanitarium property. Actually my last year as Mayor I was negotiating with Reed Coleman on the purchase of that property. We had it appraised and our appraisal was right around $750,000. Coleman also had it appraised and his appraisal came in under $800,000 (I don't remember the exact figures.) We offered them the appraised value but they wanted much more. As a representative of the City I didn't think we should be paying more than the appraised value, and I wasn't alone on this. And then the City turns around and buys it for twice the appraised value. Coleman got a really good deal and at our expense. And of course the lease the City made on two of the properties is another story. And what about the property that went to the Slinde project? No one with the City has ever been able to tell me how much the City got for that.

Fun to be in politics--glad I'm out.

Richard H. Lichtfeld"
My only disagreement with Dick's email regards Coleman's (Sand County Foundation) appraisal. I believe their appraisal was far higher; I'll have to check the exact amount.
[end of update]

Alders used the familiar theme that "the people I talked to are all against this idea." These statements were made in the face of repeated strong turnout of public speakers against development and in favor of acquisition and preservation. Nonetheless, as the battle dragged on Traver lost most votes 5-1 or 4-2 when the late Randy Paul joined him.

The public support finally helped Traver convince a majority of the council to place a nonbinding referendum on the ballot for the city to spend up to $1.5M to buy the Sand County Foundation land. During that year's candidate forum candidates the late Zona Appel and Pearl Kau, and Kathy Thomas all said they would vote personally  'yes' on the referendum question. Mark Miller, making his first run for the county board supported the purchase while incumbent Kelly McDowell opposed it.

On April 5, 1994, Monona voters then proceeded to turn at at twice the rate of the rest of the county (40% versus 20%) and passed the referendum to buy the land 1549 to 769.


That victory was only the beginning of the next phase. Negotiations dragged on for many months. Mayor Tom Metcalfe, who had opposed the acquisition but eventually signed the deal to acquire the land, declared the deal 'dead' on at least one occasion. The deal was finally concluded on December 29, 1995; the city bought the land and then leased part of it to Tellurian and part of it to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.  According to the Spring 1996, Monona City News, the cost was $1.4M (the bonds issued to cover part of that cost have been paid off). The land totaled 46.53 acres, including 20.16 acres ALNC, 17.52 acres for parkland,  Tellurian 4.53 acres, and future development 4.5 acres.

The ALNC lease has a fifty-year term with a modest PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) and no rental fee.


The Citizens of Monona received an Orchid Award in 1995 from the Capital Community Citizens for purchasing the Sand County Foundation property.


Jon Traver obtained permission to use a cartoon in the campaign from The Far Side by Gary Larson. It featured a young boy identified as "Tommy Lundquist, future developer"  surveying the view from his new concrete club house after he felled the last large tree in the yard. (BTW, you won't find Larson's comics online and he explains why here: http://www.portmann.com/farside/index.html?whatothersthink.html


I can't relate even part of this story without mentioning the work done by the Monona's intrepid city administrator Kevin Brunner (now the city manager in Whitewater). (BTW, the city engineer at the time was Rich Vela.)


Letters to the editor included some testy exchanges, between among others Jon Traver and Zona Appel.  One that caught my attention was an exchange between yours truly, an anonymous letter writer, and the Herald's editor DeAnn Laufeberg. At that time the Herald published anonymous letters including one that attacked Brunner for supposed pro-development bias and Tom Metcalfe for his 'social ambitions'. I responded with a letter remarking that the development/preservation debate had enlivened political life, but staunchly defending Brunner and Metcalfe as having the best interests of the city at heart. I also took the editor to task for publishing an anonymous personal attack. The editor responded that I was just the kind of big meany that caused people to want to make anonymous attacks and so victims of said attacks should sit down and hush (OK, I'm paraphrasing a bit loosely.).

(No, I don't think I publish anonymous personal attacks on this blog, but please point it out to me if you ever perceive that I have done so.) 


One the more startling moments in this epic affair occurred when former Mayor Lichtfeld brought a box of Native American skeletal remains to a city meeting in front of a packed house (an item that was covered in other local media, but that the Herald failed to report).

Speaking of letters to the editor, one letter responded with outrage to the amazing post-referendum attempts to argue that a 'yes' vote was actually a vote for development. The letter writer? David Cieslewicz of Monona.


One letter that caught my eye had nothing to do with the development/preservation debate, but rather was a brief response by Phil Heckman taking alder Randy Littel to task for opposing the pool art project while supporting Christian displays on public property. Littel argues that "a little prayer couldn't hurt." Heckman agreed and wrote, "Here's mine: Dear God, protect us from sanctimony." 


Final thoughts. I was in my final months on the city council in 1993 when Jon Traver first approached me about getting the city to buy the land. My oh-so-know-it-all response was along the lines of 'nice idea, but it'll never happen!' He then proceeded to prove me wrong, if it did take him the better part of three years.

In politics, nothing is ever finally settled. Keep that in mind.

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