By Will Gregory
Subject: Opportunity Lost
Despite efforts to avoid the court room, the trial over the plans for the development for Sturgeon Bay’s westside waterfront is about to commence. The lawsuit is in regards to whether the city is in violation of the constitution of the State of Wisconsin. In my short experience as a council member, nothing has proven itself more of a disappointment than this issue. An inexcusable amount of time & opportunity has been squandered. This plot of land sits on what should be our showcase development, a potential crown jewel in the center of our town. It’s eventual development is on our single greatest resource which is our waterfront. Whenever I’m anywhere in the county, the question that folks inquire about more than anything else is what’s happening with those giant eyesore of dirt piles between our two bridges. Unfortunately, I have to tell them that, as near as I can tell, those eyesores aren’t going anywhere soon. In my opinion, we are at this point because Sturgeon Bay has been failed by its leaders.
As the plans for this parcel of land were first disclosed in local media in 2014, a substantial portion of our community began seeking answers to a laundry list of questions & concerns. Here in the first months of 2017, questions regarding the “when, where, what & how” of this development still have not been resolved. I have to honestly answer when asked that I have no idea when it will be resolved. Unfortunately, the only question that I can generally give answers to is “why”.
Case in point is the letter from Cap Wulf that appeared in the opinion section of local media. His letter uses words & phrases such as “deception & misleading & falsely accuse” with precious little context to support these accusations. The group of residents who have brought this suit have provided a wealth of supporting documents. Maps, pictures, newspaper articles, and correspondence all point to a conclusion that the plan was in probable violation of Article 9, section 1 of the Wisconsin constitution. This is the portion that deals with the Public Trust Doctrine. To the lay person, this means that land that used to be part of a body of water, in this case the bay of Sturgeon Bay, can not be developed by private parties. This is not a “fabricated rationale”, it’s a stance stated quite clearly in our state constitution. It protects the average citizen of our state from more powerful interests who would fill in bodies of water for their own personal use.
Cap freely & accurately stated that the city purchased this property. When it did so, it now has to follow the law as written in Article 9. Anyone saying that since the land had previously been privately owned before city’s purchase seems to be saying that this constitutional law no longer needs to be followed. The law doesn’t say that. It’s like if you were pulled over for speeding and you tell the officer “How can you give me a ticket now? I’ve been speeding my whole life”! That’s not how our laws work.
Emails recently released show that the city’s law firm was informed by city staff as far back as 2013 that the plan would meet a road block in this section of Wisconsin’s constitution. Furthermore, additional emails record conversations between the city & First American Title Insurance discussing their refusal to grant title insurance because the company “could not get a comfort level” with the proposed plan. These are crucial points of information which I, as a duly elected & sworn city council member, had every right to know. It’s troubling that this was kept from me, that I needed to be informed thru local media.
So, here we are now. We need leadership from Mayor Thad Birmingham. This year’s building season has been lost and appeals most likely will remove next year’s as well. All of this could have been avoided had the mayor listened to the hundreds of people who packed council & planning commission meetings to the point they were held in the truck bay of the firehouse. After petitions with thousands of names were ignored. It happened after repeated attempts to reach a compromise proved fruitless even though the Friends group, the developer and State Rep. Joel Kitchens were involved. As a city, we’ve been let down and our leaders must accept the blame that is on their shoulders.
Alderman, District 7