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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Extra Protections Created for the Milwaukee River Corridor

Coalition finds common ground for future generations

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It took years of negotiations among diverse stakeholders, but in May the Milwaukee Common Council passed new protections for the Milwaukee River corridor, from North Avenue to the city limits at West Silver Spring Drive.

Although state law protects shore-land areas throughout Wisconsin, Milwaukee County is exempt from those regulations. In their place, a patchwork of zoning and regulations governs almost 800 acres of land owned by the city, Milwaukee County, UW-Milwaukee, businesses such as Wisconsin Paperboard and private residents.

Now, however, with the creation of the Milwaukee River Greenway Overlay Zone, that stretch of the river and surrounding natural areas will have new layers of security through uniform zoning.

“I think it’s been a great example of how persistence on the part of citizens can pay off,” said Ann Brummitt, director of the Milwaukee River Work Group, which led the coalition to protect the river.

Brummitt also credited Alderman Nik Kovac, who took the lead on the legislation with Alderwoman Milele Coggs and Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, with navigating a tricky political process.

Kovac said that the years of meetings among the stakeholders—commercial developers, bicyclists, residents and other government agencies—helped to build consensus about the project.

“There were a lot of stakeholders, some of whom thought that they fundamentally disagreed with each other, but that’s part of what time allows you to do,” Kovac said. “It allows you to find common ground.”

New Height Restrictions With Room for Development

According to the new city ordinances, the Milwaukee River greenway corridor extends 50 feet from the top of the bluff, an area full of endangered and threatened native plants and animals, as well as residential and commercial buildings. The long-term goal of the Milwaukee River Work Group’s partners—including the Urban Ecology Center, the River Revitalization Foundation, Milwaukee Riverkeeper and the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin—is to preserve this natural space within a vibrant urban setting.

New properties within this protected zone must comply with additional design standards and storm-water management regulations. Single-family homes and duplexes are exempt, as are already constructed buildings.

New buildings must be set back from the bluffs, adhere to height restrictions, use high-quality building materials, and use natural plants as landscaping.

But the new design standards can accommodate commercial buildings where appropriate.

“One of the compromises we made was to allow a less restrictive model along commercial corridors, which are North Avenue, Locust and Capitol,” Brummitt said.

To prevent erosion and water pollution, developments that occupy more than a half-acre must have a storm-water management strategy and reduce the amount of solids discharged into the river. Elsewhere in the city those guidelines apply to developments on a full acre of land.

“The old law said you could just send water into the Milwaukee River,” said Cheryl Nenn, the Milwaukee Riverkeeper. “That might make sense Downtown, where you have seawalls, but it doesn’t make sense if there’s a 200-foot bluff and you want to pipe water directly into the river. That causes a lot of damage on the way and adds pollution that doesn’t need to be in the river.”

Alderman Kovac predicted that the Milwaukee River corridor would experience a rebirth much like Bradford Beach, which has transformed into a vibrant recreational area after being strewn with litter and harmful algae.

“There was a lot of pollution along the river and it had been abandoned for a while,” Kovac said. “In the future, not just people from the neighborhood but people from the entire region will say, when the weather’s nice, ‘I’ll take a walk along the river, or a jog or a bike ride.’”

Clear-Cutting Restrictions Still in Limbo

Although the Milwaukee River won important protections in May, Kovac is still working out tree-removal restrictions that would prevent unnecessary removal of trees from the area, since they provide necessary habitat for animals, a much-needed urban tree canopy and bluff stability.

The snag, however, is writing an ordinance that prevents unnecessary clear-cutting but also can be enforced.

Milwaukee County, which owns about 70% of the land in the corridor, had thought it would be exempt from the new restrictions, since it has a land-management program and didn’t want to seek the city’s permission when it wanted to cut down trees.

Kovac said the city doesn’t want to micromanage the county’s land management strategy every time it wants to cut down a tree that’s diseased or invasive.

“But we’ve got to have something consistent that is fair to public and private landowners,” Kovac said. “If we just give the county a blanket exemption with no conditions, then a private landowner will say, ‘I can’t do it but the county can?’”

Kovac said another option is to develop a definition of clear-cutting that protects the natural habitat but doesn’t unfairly restrict the county.

“Right now the lawyers are hashing it out,” Kovac said.

He hopes to present the revised ordinance in June.

Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black said the overall goal of protecting the river corridor was "fantastic" and that she was confident that the city and county could resolve the tree-cutting regulations soon.

“In the end I'm confident we'll get it right,” Black said.

Developing a Master Plan

As the Shepherd goes to press, the Milwaukee River Work Group is presenting its master plan to the public, a plan for the trails and public entry points within this protected land.

Brummitt, of the Milwaukee River Work Group, said the master plan includes recommendations for rules and improving public access through better land and water trails and signage.

“It’s based on a shared-use philosophy,” Brummitt said. “The users that use the corridor now can stay. We’re not going to ban, say, mountain bikes or dog walkers from using the trail. We all have to learn how to get along. We’re going to establish rules and build the trail sustainably so that it can work.”

After the public meeting, the Work Group will ask its partners to sign a memorandum of understanding and adopt the plan.

“It’s completely self-funded,” Brummitt said.

Kovac said the city wasn’t inclined to sign onto the agreement, since its role is to enforce the new ordinances, not get involved in the recreational use of the land.

“The practical implications of the overlay are that it allows the master plan to work,” Kovac said. “You can have all of these plans and a wrench could have been thrown into them if the city didn’t protect the land.”