Extra Protections Created for the Milwaukee River Corridor
Coalition finds common ground for future generations
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
businesses such as Wisconsin Paperboard and private residents.
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.
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.
also credited Alderman Nik Kovac, who took the lead on the legislation with
Alderwoman Milele Coggs and Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, with navigating a tricky
that the years of meetings among the stakeholders—commercial developers,
bicyclists, residents and other government agencies—helped to build consensus
about the project.
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.”
Height Restrictions With Room for Development
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
the River Revitalization Foundation, Milwaukee Riverkeeper and the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin—is
to preserve this natural space within a vibrant urban setting.
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.
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.
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.”
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.’”
Restrictions Still in Limbo
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.
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.
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.
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
another option is to develop a definition of clear-cutting that protects the
natural habitat but doesn’t unfairly restrict the county.
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
“In the end I'm confident we'll get it right,” Black
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.
the Milwaukee River Work Group, said the master plan includes recommendations
for rules and improving public access through better land and water trails and
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.”
public meeting, the Work Group will ask its partners to sign a memorandum of
understanding and adopt the plan.
completely self-funded,” Brummitt 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
“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.”