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Wauwatosa takes a big step toward conservation zoning

A decision by Wauwatosa’s Community Affairs Committee to recommend conservation zoning as a future land use for Sanctuary Woods has some preservation proponents breathing a sigh of relief. Implementation of the recommendation, however, is a complex process that will require additional time and effort.

It’s been over a year since the name Sanctuary Woods made headlines over a contentious development proposal. The controversy erupted when the City of Wauwatosa unveiled its Life Sciences District Master Plan, which proposed new roads and high-rise developments in a beloved corner of the Milwaukee County Grounds. For several months in early 2017, Sanctuary Woods, as the land came to be known, became a rallying cry for citizens opposed to the plan.

Then, in May 2017, the Wauwatosa Common Council’s Committee of the Whole passed a resolution that put the Master Plan on hold until “the natural areas of land commonly known as County Grounds Park, Sanctuary Woods, and DNR Forest land north and west of Swan Boulevard is permanently preserved in perpetuity.” The plan has been in limbo ever since.

Sanctuary Woods from Paupers's Cemetery.

Sanctuary Woods from Paupers’s Cemetery. Photo by Eddee Daniel.

The Life Sciences District Master Plan, since it encompasses 1,200 acres along both sides of Watertown Plank Road as far west as Mayfair Road, has a scope far beyond whatever fate is to befall the 66-acre woodland. In an effort to revive the dormant plan, the Community Affairs Committee recently deliberated potential options. In the end, the committee recommended that the city’s Land Use Plan be amended so that the majority of the land in question (see map below) can be zoned as a Special Purpose District – Conservation (SP-CON). If adopted and enforced, this would satisfy the Committee of the Whole’s preservation requirement and allow a revised Life Sciences District Master Plan to move forward.

Planning map showing County Grounds Park and Sanctuary Woods.

Planning map showing County Grounds Park and Sanctuary Woods. Courtesy City of Wauwatosa.

The committee included the following conditions to its recommendation. During the process of implementation, the city must…

– Continue to have an open conversation with stakeholders during the process;

– Consider the Natural Resource Report from the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and the existing guidelines of the Habitat Protection Plan;

– Pursue the rezoning and preservation of the parcels identified as SP-CON.

– Recognize that the conditions of the May 9, 2017, hold action remain in effect in the event that any development proposal in the Northeast Quadrant comes forward prior to adoption of a revised LSD Plan.

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Bouquet, Sanctuary Woods

Bouquet of wildflowers, Sanctuary Woods. Photo by Eddee Daniel.

The County Grounds Coalition, the non-profit organization that has consistently advocated for preservation of Sanctuary Woods, is among the stakeholders to be consulted, according to alderman Jason Wilke, a member of the committee.

In a statement, Peter Abbott, Chair of the County Grounds Coalition, said that “County Grounds advocates were glad to see the Community Affairs Committee take a solid step in the right direction, resolving to preserve all of the County Grounds Northeast Quadrant’s natural areas, including Sanctuary Woods.

“What we need to see next,” he continued, “is the actual rezoning of those natural areas as such — as the Milwaukee County Board requested — before the city proceeds with its Life Sciences District Master Plan. That would mean disallowing any northward extension of 92nd Street.”

Addressing the issue of roads, Paulette Enders, City of Wauwatosa Development Director, said that if this recommendation is adopted and implemented, then there is “no need for a roadway system,” as presented in the January 2017 LSD Master Plan.

With regard to the rezoning, Enders pointed out that, while the city can amend its Land Use Plan to reflect the intention of changing the zoning to SP-CON, the actual zoning change would have to be initiated by the property owner, Milwaukee County. When asked what would happen if the county requested a development inconsistent with the Land Use Plan, she said, “Typically the city staff recommends to the Common Council that it deny such a request.”

Halloween penant dragonfly, Sanctuary Woods.

Halloween penant dragonfly, Sanctuary Woods. Photo by Eddee Daniel.

These are the next steps in the process:

– City staff will modify the portion of the LSD Master Plan that relates to the Northeast Quadrant (bounded by Watertown Plank Road, Interstate-41, Underwood Parkway and the Menomonee River Parkway) by identifying the future land use for the stipulated area as “Parks and Open Space” (which allows for future zoning as Special Purpose District – Conservation), and by removing any text or maps not consistent with the accompanying map.

– The Plan Commission will review the revised LSD Master Plan and make recommendations to the Common Council.

– A public hearing will be scheduled to allow for input from the community.

– The Wauwatosa Common Council will receive recommendations and public input and decide whether or not to accept the revised documents and amend the city’s comprehensive land use plan.

If after all of these steps the recommendation is adopted, then the Land Use Plan would be amended to identify Sanctuary Woods and County Grounds Park as “Parks and Open Space.” This process is likely to take several months, according to Enders. Following that, a request for rezoning would have to come from Milwaukee County.

While zoning is imperfect as an instrument for preservation — since zoning can change — the intention to preserve the integrity of Sanctuary Woods has been clearly and publicly expressed.

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