Queen of Green

by Larry Sussman, photo by Adam Ryan Morris At dusk, the lush, green, rolling hills and farm fields of the Mequon Nature Preserve blur in the distance, suggesting a Monet landscape. Wildflowers and weeds line the half-mile grass path to the observation tower, and rows of wind-tossed black-eyed Susans wave to passersby. Clover with tight-budded red and white flowers emit the fresh smell of summer. Three grazing does peer lazily from afar. Then, as you climb the 40-foot-high tower, it’s a surprise to see the city lights so dim and distant. It’s the quiet before the storm, broken only by…

by Larry Sussman, photo by Adam Ryan Morris

At dusk, the lush, green, rolling hills and farm fields of the Mequon Nature Preserve blur in the distance, suggesting a Monet landscape. Wildflowers and weeds line the half-mile grass path to the observation tower, and rows of wind-tossed black-eyed Susans wave to passersby. Clover with tight-budded red and white flowers emit the fresh smell of summer. Three grazing does peer lazily from afar. Then, as you climb the 40-foot-high tower, it’s a surprise to see the city lights so dim and distant. It’s the quiet before the storm, broken only by bird song, as heavy gray clouds gathering over a yellow-red sunset lend a fiery glow to the nature preserve.

The storm, you might say, comes the next day as the anything-but-contemplative former mayor of Mequon, Christine Nuernberg, drives a reporter through the 438-acre preserve and talks nonstop about the benefits of restoring what is mostly farmland to its pristine state. Aggressively steering an electric golf cart on the bumpy grass and gravel trails, Nuernberg isn’t concentrating all that much on her driving as she darts through three hardwood forests, several wetlands and prairies. It is her legacy to Mequon, after all, a scruffy work in progress that is far from the wooded preserve it will one day become, yet she’s like a mother watching her saplings grow.

“As years goes by, this will only get nicer and nicer,” she says. “In 25 years, it will be a green oasis for people to enjoy forever.”

Approaching a pond, she brakes, hops off the cart, jumps into the sandy dirt and scoops up a tiny, whitish-brown American toad. Cupping it in her hands, she offers it to the reporter, some real live source material for this story.

After the ride, the reporter – a little dazed by all the turns and bumps – asks, “Isn’t it easy to get lost in the preserve?”

“Isn’t that the point?” she answers.

Nuernberg, 66, who finished a 12-year tenure as mayor of the state’s fourth-largest city (in land area) in April, is praised for enhancing property values, helping keep out big-box stores and preserving Mequon’s rural atmosphere even as it lost most of its farms. She was also an indomitable force in creating the nature preserve, which, when connected to Kohl’s Park just south of the Ozaukee County border, will yield a green space nearly as large as New York’s Central Park. Nuernberg’s push for green initiatives has been a major influence not just on other suburbs, but also on state planning. “I regard Mayor Nuernberg as the greatest elective official I’ve ever worked with in championing environmental causes and protecting open space,” says Dan Kaemmerer, a community service specialist in southeastern Wisconsin for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Yet Nuernberg accomplished all this rather quietly, seldom antagonizing anyone. Somehow, she kept the peace in Mequon after the city lived a six-year war under her predecessor as mayor, James Moriarty. It was a tough balancing act in a city with many wealthy egos and property owners who know their lawyers by their first names. Nuernberg accomplished much yet managed to make the process feel collaborative. Even today, Mequon insiders wonder just how she did it. One of her secret weapons – and she had many – was to go out with Common Council members for a beer after their meetings.

Chris Arnold washer maiden name. She grew up in Los Angeles and spent many days in Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, where her family loved to camp. She lived near an orange grove and got into many orange fights, good training for any future politician. “You know that you’ve been smacked when you get hit by an orange.”

Her family moved to a rural area outside of Madison in 1957 when she was 13. She was disappointed at first. “I used to think that Wisconsin was a flat, green place. I would take an earthquake any day over a tornado. Thunderstorms were very frightening.”

But over time, her views changed: “I fell in love with Wisconsin.”

She met her husband, Robert Nuernberg, when they attended UW-Madison. He retired from the Wisconsin Gas Co. – where he was general counsel, secretary and vice president of corporate affairs – a decade ago. The couple has two daughters and two grandchildren.

For three years after college, Chris Nuernberg taught social studies at Frank Lloyd Wright Intermediate School in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District. She then began raising two daughters, finding the time to get a master’s degree in political science from UW-Milwaukee to go with her earlier master’s in curriculum and instruction from UW-Madison. “I like to learn, and I like to stay busy,” she says.

After her kids were raised, she rejoined the job market. She served for seven years in the 1990s as development director and then executive director of ARC of Greater Milwaukee, a nonprofit agency on Center Street in Wauwatosa that aids individuals with developmental disabilities.

Whitefish Bay Village President Kathleen Pritchard worked at the time as a program evaluator for United Way and was impressed with Nuernberg. “Chris was really efficient,” Pritchard says. “She was more efficient than the usual nonprofit leader and more compassionate than the usual public official.”

Nuernberg ran for mayor in 1998 as a kind of peacemaker, an alternative to the combative James Moriarty, who served for six tumultuous years. A 1997 Milwaukee Magazine story described Moriarty as a blunt, confrontational politician who kept a Nixon-like enemies list and could be vindictive toward those who opposed him.

Former Mequon Ald. Alan Harrington filed an ethics complaint against Moriarty in 1996 and complained in a memo to Moriarty that, “You no longer lead; you assault, humiliate and degrade residents.”

Moriarty told the magazine he didn’t play “paddycake” with those he opposed. “I’m here to do what the residents want done,” he said.

Many Mequon residents were embarrassed that their community regularly made the news. Moriarty declined to run for a third term in 1998, and people seemed to welcome Nuernberg’s campaign promise to promote civility in government.

She had previously held office as a Mequon-Thiensville School Board member for 18 years and sat on the Ozaukee County Board for eight years. Still, she says, “I was clueless about many issues as mayor.”

But she took the time to learn. Sam Cutler Jr., a former Mequon alderman, says the key to Nuernberg’s success was that she made a part-time job, which paid about $9,600 a year, into a full-time one: “She put so much time and effort into projects that she always knew the most,” he recalls. “She was masterful.”

“You either give 100 percent, or don’t bother,” Nuernberg says. “I don’t find it satisfying to do a little bit here and there.”

Before an applicant appeared before the Planning Commission, Nuernberg had thoroughly investigated the request. “She always knew her stuff,” Cutler says.

At 5 feet 5 inches tall, thin with light-brown hair, Nuernberg does not look intimidating. But her intense blue eyes can bore into you as she talks. City Hall staffers characterize Nuernberg as a perfectionist but with a very human side. “She absolutely requires the best of all the people working with her,” says John DeStefanis, the Mequon city attorney since 1993. “In doing so, she inspires you to give your best. But she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”

Nuernberg had a uniquely collaborative style that contrasted markedly to that of Moriarty. Curt Gielow, the current Mequon mayor, served as Mequon’s Common Council president during some of the years Nuernberg was mayor. She would let people freely express themselves at council meetings, he says, but then at an appropriate time, “She would bring the conversation to a consensus. Everyone has their say, but then the result is achieved.”

Nuernberg’s style prevented policy debates from becoming personality contests. Mequon Ald. John Wirth, a conservative who pushes for less government control, often publicly disagreed with Nuernberg. Wirth was instrumental in getting the council to impose a property tax levy freeze in 2003, and though Nuernberg opposed it, she lived under it without rancor. “We’ve always had a mutual respect,” Wirth says. “The fact that we disagree politically doesn’t mean we dislike each other personally.”

One year, Nuernberg publicly endorsed Bruce Barnes in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Wirth. And yet today, Wirth considers Nuernberg his friend. “I’m the only alderman she opposed for re-election,” he says. “But we still worked together well. We both want what’s best for the community but don’t always agree on what that is.”

“The thing that tests you the most is your ability to be patient over many years to get projects done,” Nuernberg says. “I think you just have to outlast your opponents.”

“She’s got a ton of perseverance,” Pritchard notes. “She would try to convince people of things they didn’t even know they were interested in.”

“Despite all her collaborative skills,” Gielow says, “she’s opinionated. She is able to move the consensus.”

And after a meeting was over, Nuernberg often had that beer with council members. “I got to know about them, their hobbies and their families,” she says. “It’s hard to poke someone in the eye when you get to know them personally.”

Ironically, these beer sessions were probably illegal: a full quorum of a governmental body can’t meet privately. But their impact was undeniable. Says Pritchard: “I really think it was one of the reasons she was an effective leader.”

With 47 squaremiles of land, among Wisconsin cities, Mequon trails only Milwaukee, Madison and Superior in geographic size. But in terms of population, it ranks 33rd in the state and is a small town, with just 23,584 people. Mequon is very thinly populated, with just 514 people per square mile, compared to 8,356 in Shorewood, 6,289 in Milwaukee and 1,436 in Brookfield.

Mayor Moriarty was fiercely opposed to any development he felt might change the rural character of Mequon. “We had developers constantly wanting to develop their parcels, while the community wanted them to go elsewhere,” says Brad Steinke, the Mequon community development director from 1981 to 2004.

The development fight became especially nasty over whether to allow Marcus Corp. to add screens at the North Shore Cinema on Port Washington Road and build an Applebee’s restaurant and bar on Mequon Road. Ultimately, an out-of court settlement in the mid-1990s permitted the theater expansion in exchange for dropping Applebee’s from the plan.

In a far less-public fight, Moriarty is credited with keeping a Walmart store, planned for 150,000 to 200,000 square feet, out of Mequon. Walmart had eyes on the corner of Mequon and Wauwatosa roads. “In my 23 years in Mequon, I did not have any developer more assertive,” says Steinke, who is now director of development services for Apache Junction, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. One Walton family member rented a helicopter and flew over possible sites for Walmart big-box stores in metro Milwaukee, and the Mequon Road site had a high priority, Steinke says. But Moriarty’s staunch opposition and the city’s ordinances limiting retail store size prevailed.

Without a variance in Mequon, no stores can have more than 20,000 square feet of commercial space. That zoning rule remained in effect under Nuernberg, and as a result, many big-box stores skipped over Mequon and located in Grafton. But Nuernberg accomplished this without the public blowups that occurred under Moriarty.

“Nuernberg took the Moriarty values of limited growth and facilitated such with the gentleness of a velvet glove,” Gielow says. “The big-box development that worried us a decade ago has missed us, and yet we have the convenience of being only 10 minutes away from it by car.”

During Nuernberg’s tenure, the city solidified its reputation as the ultimate bedroom community, where business hubbub was controlled and confined. Port Washington Road in Mequon has many office complexes and the Mequon Pavilions Shopping Center. But Nuernberg and the Common Council refused to let Port Washington Road become another Bluemound Road, the hyperdeveloped strip in Brookfield.

Nuernberg did help lay the groundwork for a proposed shopping/dining/recreational area, the Mequon-Thiensville Town Center, which will be located predominantly near the intersection of Cedarburg and Mequon roads and close to the Milwaukee River. “You have to set the stage for continued prosperity for the next 20 years,” she says.

Yet Mequon remains uniquely dependent on homes for tax revenue. Residences make up 86 percent of the city’s $4.19 billion property tax base.

And few if any homes are affordable for low-income people. The 7,020-plus single-family houses in Mequon have an average assessed value of $424,854, says Mark Emanuelson, the city’s assistant finance director.

The average residential property in the city of Milwaukee is assessed at $127,100. Just 121 of the 8,200 Mequon residential properties, including single-family houses, duplexes and condominiums, are assessed at $127,100 or less, says Michael Grota head of Grota Appraisals and the city’s assessor. That comes to just under 1.5 percent of the total housing stock.

Among the top 33 Wisconsin cities in population, “Mequon has the smallest percentage of low-valued homes,” Grota says. “I don’t believe any other municipality would come close to Mequon.”

Mequon has the largest number of million-dollar houses – 341 – of any municipality in the metro area, Grota adds. About one in 21 homes are worth at least a million. That doesn’t compare to neighboring River Hills, where 135 of 624 residential parcels, or about one in five houses, are worth at least $1 million, according to its village assessor, Fred Matthes. But the sheer quantity of wealthy homes in Mequon is what stands out.

“The concentration in McMansions may blow up in their faces some day,” says former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist (1988 to 2004). “That particular housing goes in cycles. If you create a monoculture in housing, it becomes more vulnerable” in tougher economic times, he notes. “If the government tries to typecast a city in just one dimension, you can pay a penalty later on. I don’t think Mequon has the key to the future.”

Compared to most cities across the state, Mequon has far less variety. “When we look at successful neighborhoods, we find people with all different types of backgrounds and incomes,” says Dave Reid, co-founder and writer for urbanmilwaukee.com. “To me, a neighborhood works if you allow your local hairdresser, your bartender and maybe a teacher to live in the same neighborhood where they work.” But Mequon has used zoning policies to exclude less-wealthy people, he notes. “The end result is many workers in Mequon businesses most likely cannot afford to live there.”

Milwaukee Ald. Robert Bauman sees the situation in political terms: “Mequon basically represents a social and economic cream-skimming, which our current political order allows.” Residents in a bedroom community, he notes, can easily drive to the city to enjoy all it offers “without paying for the costs of the big city. The poverty is Milwaukee’s problem, but it’s not their problem. They could do more. That’s what regional cooperation is all about.”

Even Mequon’s current mayor worries that the city needs a more varied tax base. “I am concerned that a healthy community residential property tax base should support about 75 percent of the tax levy [rather than the current 86 percent],” he says. “My intention is to pay a little more attention to commercial viability and build a commercial base, but no big-box development.”

A broader tax base will better position Mequon to pay for the increasing costs of public safety, public works and public welfare, he says. “We have to increase the 14 percent we are getting from commercial and industrial interests to 25 percent.”

Mequon residents, however, seemed to approve of Nuernberg’s continued focus on residential development, re-electing her in 2001, 2004 and 2007. That focus continued even as the city took over more rural land. Mequon rezoned about 10,000 acres of land to 5-acres-minimum lots in areas not served by sewers and
located mostly on the city’s rural northern and western edges. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission recommended larger lots for the needed septic systems. “Because the lots are larger, it does significantly add to the cost of the house,” Nuernberg concedes, but she maintains that Mequon has some fill-in areas, served by sewers, “that would permit new-home construction for younger families.”

But when asked where in Mequon these more affordable houses might be found, she declined to say.

The license plateson Nuernberg’s Toyota Avalon read “Ace on 4” for the hole-in-one she made several years ago at Hawthorne Hills Golf Course. Nuernberg is an enthusiastic golfer and played a key role in keeping more green space in Mequon.

“People will pay a premium to live alongside a golf course, even if they don’t play golf,” she says. “The green space has a positive impact on property values.”

Nuernberg championed preserving open space and conservation subdivisions, but these concepts were a relatively easy sell in Mequon, she says. “Mequon residents have always seen preserving open space as critical to the quality of life.”

In the conservation subdivisions in Mequon, houses are clustered relatively close to one another on 1- or 2-acre lots surrounded by green space. Under Nuernberg, more than a dozen of these subdivisions were built, mostly near and west of Wauwatosa Road (76th Street), where farms once predominated.

The old style of suburban subdivisions, where every lot has 2 or 3 acres of grass to mow, have become less popular, says Grota, whose company handles assessment duties for more than 50 municipalities in the metro area. “Ultimately, lots in a conservation subdivision retain a greater value than 3-acre lots in a rural subdivision. Nuernberg emphasized open space, and that stabilizes and protects housing values.”

Nuernberg’s penchant for green space also extended to waterways. Mequon was the first suburban community to join the Greenseams flood management program run by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, says Kevin Shafer, its executive director. The Greenseams program seeks to buy land that naturally absorbs water, mainly in rural areas, thereby protecting and restoring land that helps prevent floods. This, in turn, slows
down or eliminates much water pollution before it reaches Milwaukee County.

Reasons Nuernberg: “It’s cheaper [for the sewerage district] to buy land in Mequon and Germantown and let the pollutants [in the streams] discharge into the ground than it is to construct many more miles of deep tunnels.”

“She understands that waterways go beyond city boundaries,” Shafer says. “She is really a true visionary for the environment.”

Twenty-eight municipalities now belong to the Greenseams program. The sewerage district’s commissioners recently authorized paying $290,000 to buy more than 50 acres of floodplain along the Little Menomonee River in Mequon. The land will hold spring floodwaters and give fish a place to spawn.

Mequon was one of the first Milwaukee suburban communities to emphasize preserving important natural features and open space as a buffer between houses and highways. Franklin Ald. Kristen Wilhelm says she met Nuernberg on a panel discussion in 2002, during which both women gave talks on the subject. “We just kind of shared information,” Wilhelm says. “Nuernberg’s efforts have made it more acceptable to participate in land preservation. She leads by example.”

In 2004 and 2005, New Berlin hired noted conservationist Randall Arendt to help the city update an ordinance that controls new subdivisions citywide. The ordinance, approved in 2005, requires at least 75 percent of a subdivision’s land to be set aside for open space if sewers and city water do not serve the subdivision, New Berlin community development director Greg Kessler says.

Franklin city attorney Jesse Wesolowski says Franklin has one of the most restrictive preservation ordinances in the state when it comes to requiring developers to protect natural features, such as wetlands, woodlands, steep slopes and navigable waters. The Franklin ordinance permits no construction in a 50-foot-wide buffer zone around wetlands.

Dan Kaemmerer of the DNR salutes Nuernberg’s work on the DNR’s 29-member Citizen Advisory Committee. The committee met during the last half of 2008 and recommended how much recreational access the public should have to lands the state buys using the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. In general, Stewardship lands must be open to the public for hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking and cross-country skiing.

But Nuernberg pushed for a policy whereby local governments and land trusts in urban areas would be eligible for Stewardship grants even if hunting and trapping weren’t permitted. “This has had a statewide impact,” Kaemmerer says. “Her efforts go beyond Mequon.”

But the Nature Preserve is her greatest legacy – and a prime example of a successful private-public partnership. In the summer of 2000, retired insurance executive Richard Paddock offered a deal that Nuernberg quickly accepted. Paddock thought the farmland on the north side of County Line Road in Ozaukee County, some 438 acres, could be used to create a park in Mequon. It was across the street from the undeveloped Kohl Park in Milwaukee County, which includes about 270 acres. Paddock offered $500,000 to Ozaukee County to make this happen, but the county turned him down. Mequon, with Nuernberg in the lead, accepted his offer.

The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust helped Mequon expand Paddock’s vision. The city, working in concert with the land trust and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, decided to purchase about a square mile of land.

Ultimately, the city of Mequon contributed about $2.5 million for the preserve and approved conservation easements on another 112 acres owned by Wayside Nurseries Inc. But that still left millions more to raise. Nuernberg is credited with raising more than $11 million in public and private contributions and land donations for the preserve.

“She works incredibly hard, and she knows everybody,” Wirth says.

Former Ald. Cutler calls Nuernberg one of the best fundraisers he’s ever seen. How does she do it? “She’s not threatening, she’s very personable, and she’s so energetic,” he says. “She is persistent, and she does her homework.”

The preserve is bounded by West Donges Bay and West County Line roads on the north and south, and North Wauwatosa and North Swan roads on the east and west. It already has five miles of hiking trails and an environmental education center, which includes two classrooms with many mounted stuffed owls and hawks as well as deer heads. Altogether, the preserve, the park land and the conservation easements cover 820 acres, as compared with 843 acres for Manhattan’s Central Park.

Nuernberg offers one example of how a nature preserve located near an urban setting can be valuable. She says she’s seen Milwaukee school children visit the preserve and fear that if they walk in the woods, bears will get them. They have never seen frogs and are scared to death to pick up a toad. They are afraid to even step off a gravel path into the taller grass.

“The nature preserve is a convenient location for environmental education and science, and a great place for exercise,” Nuernberg says. “It is demonstrating important, environmentally friendly practices to a larger metropolitan area.”

Norquist offers his “unvarnished praise” for creating the preserve. “It’s an asset for anyone who lives in northwestern Milwaukee.”

Nuernberg, however, says the project isn’t quite done yet. She hopes $3.5 million can be raised for an endowment that could spin off operating funds for the preserve. Is there a fundraiser in waiting to replace her? Nuernberg doesn’t even consider the possibility. “I think,” she says, “I’ll just keep doing this until I get it done.”

Larry Sussman is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine. Reach him at letters@milwaukeemag.com.