County Supervisors Push Back on Abele’s Couture Bill
On Monday, a Milwaukee County board committee heard testimony from aides to Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele on a new bill that the administration says would provide more clarity on which portions of Milwaukee’s lakefront can be developed by a private entity. The bill, authored by Republican state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) and state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), is intended to provide legal cover for the development of Rick Barrett’s planned Couture high-rise project on the site of the county-owned Transit Center.
The legality of the Couture development is being questioned by the public interest advocacy group Preserve Our Parks, which argues that a portion of the Transit Center site is located on filled lakebed. The Wisconsin constitution’s Public Trust doctrine protects filled lakebed from private development and requires all development on filled lakebed to be in the public’s interest and owned by the public.
But the Abele administration has pushed for legislation that would override that constitutional doctrine, first by getting a sympathetic Republican legislator to insert a Couture-friendly amendment in the state budget last year that uses a boundary drawn in 1913, thereby avoiding any public hearings, and now by reaffirming that position in the just-announced bill.
“The intent of the legislation is to put us in a better position,” testified Teig Whaley-Smith, the county’s economic development director, on Monday.
‘A Can of Worms’
But some supervisors pushed back on the administration’s assessment, saying that the bill would open up new legal challenges that could threaten established private developments on the lakefront, including the Italian Community Center in the Third Ward. The bill encompasses not only the Transit Center parcel, but a two-and-a-half-mile stretch that cuts through the far East Side of the city.
Supervisors had earlier voted to direct the Abele administration to ask a judge to clarify the lakebed boundary before moving forward with the Couture development. But Abele chose to have the Republicans craft the state bill instead.
Supervisor Patricia Jursik, an attorney and chair of the Economic and Community Development Committee, said that she supports development on the Transit Center site that adheres to the state constitution. But she said the bill is so broadly written that it could allow Preserve Our Parks or another entity to raise a constitutional challenge in federal court, further delaying development of the site and jeopardizing other developments around the state.
“The bill attempts to establish a factual finding through the Legislature,” Jursik said. “And I really fear you have created a real can of worms by doing this. Not just for our Transit Center site, which I would very much like to get that issue resolved. But you have now created a process that could potentially risk the Public Trust doctrine throughout the state of Wisconsin.”
Jursik argued that the Abele-backed bill is relying on the development rights historically granted to railroads, which are broader than those granted to private parties.
“Railroad rights are practically the same as Public Trust doctrine rights,” Jursik said.
Jursik got the outside attorney representing the county, Reinhart, Boerner, Van Deuren attorney J. Bushnell Nielsen, to admit to helping to draft the legislation.
That seemed to be news to the committee members.
Whaley-Smith countered that “we’ve been very transparent” about the Abele administration’s efforts to lobby state legislators on this matter.
Supervisors asked for the names of legislators who have signed on to the fast-tracked bill, primarily Republicans who represent the outskirts of Milwaukee County, Waukesha and elsewhere, but also Democrats Lena Taylor, Christine Sinicki and Josh Zepnick.
Supervisor Michael Mayo noted that none of the lawmakers represent the area affected by the bill.
“When are we going to talk about the public?” Mayo asked.
Supervisor Steve Taylor, who is not an attorney, accused Jursik of trying to “derail” the project and called her arguments “asinine.”
"I've sat and listened to enough of this crap," he said before voting to go into closed session.
A hearing in the state Assembly is scheduled for Feb. 5.