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Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014

Issue of the Week: Milwaukee Lakefront Bill Gets a One-Sided Hearing

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Legislators got only half the story on a bill that could tie up lakefront development in the courts for years.

Last week, an Assembly committee heard testimony on a bill crafted by state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) and state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) that would redraw the boundaries of Lake Michigan shoreline in Milwaukee. As usual, when Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele fails to get support from the county board, he goes to his right-wing Republican pals in the Legislature to override the local Milwaukee County elected officials. To get his way, Abele would rather have Republican legislators from around the state, many of whom literally hate Milwaukee County, make the decisions instead of the people we elect locally. So much for local control and for respecting the wishes of the people of Milwaukee County. The Republicans are again going to bat for Abele, who wants to sell the county-owned Transit Center site, one of the most valuable parcels in the city and perhaps the entire state, to his developer friend, Rick Barrett, for the high-rise Couture development. There are questions as to whether Abele will either directly, or through a shell corporation, be an investor in this Couture project.

The problem is that some of the site may be on filled lakebed and, if so, would be protected by the state constitution’s Public Trust doctrine. That would prohibit the sale to a private developer, who could restrict if not outright ban public access. 

The bill is supposed to clear up the issue. At least, that’s what Sanfelippo and Abele’s lobbyist asserted in the committee last week.

But it was clear that lawmakers—most of them from outside Milwaukee County—were utterly baffled by the bill and were misled by Sanfelippo and Abele’s aides.

When asked if there was opposition to the bill, the testifiers said no. Well, just a parks group that doesn’t like development, they admitted.

In reality, the Milwaukee County Board has pushed to resolve this issue in the courts, not in the Legislature. In fact, a year ago it requested the county’s outside counsel, Bushnell Nielson, to submit a suit so that a judge could determine the facts and whether the Public Trust doctrine would apply to the site. Instead of following the board’s policy, Abele and the attorney worked with Republicans twice to resolve this through legislation, first in a late-night amendment in the state budget without a public hearing and now with an expanded version of that amendment.

The problem is that Sanfelippo and Vukmir’s bill could create bigger legal issues than what the Couture faces now. That would tie up the Transit Center sale and development for years. And it could set a precedent that would allow the Legislature to draw lakeshore lines to favor private development on and restrict public access to publicly owned shoreline.

But lawmakers didn’t hear that side of the story, since the parks group in question, Preserve Our Parks, registered against the bill but wasn’t able to have someone there to testify in person. County board members and their lobbyist were absent as well. Only bill supporters spoke, giving their biased testimony. There is a great deal of money to be made from a project in that location so, of course, Abele’s side was well represented.

This bill is being fast-tracked by Republicans and could be made into law soon. It’s a shame that lawmakers will be voting on such a critical bill without learning all of the facts they need to make a good decision.