Sunset over County Grounds Park

Wauwatosa Committee Makes Surprising Decision on County Grounds

Vote is victory for opponents of controversial master plan

A Wauwatosa Common Council committee voted unanimously Tuesday night to put on hold the controversial master plan for what is being called the Life Sciences District.

“We have been listening,” Kathleen Causier, chair of the council’s Community Affairs Committee, told the packed room in the council chambers. The size of the audience for a committee meeting indicated once again the amount of concern and attention being paid to this issue by the community. The outcome included a provision that seemed to surprise nearly everyone in attendance.

During the public comment period before the committee deliberations, the contentiousness that had characterized so many previous meetings simmered but never boiled over. The idea of putting the master planning process on hold was itself uncontroversial. Speaker after speaker rose to agree with it. Despite the narrow focus of the issue at hand, many couldn’t resist the opportunity to reiterate their opposition to elements of the plan itself.

When it came time for the committee itself to deliberate, Ald. Cheryl Berdan made the motion, which was to put the planning process on hold until such time as the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and Milwaukee County both completed environmental impact assessments of County Grounds Park and the non-park county land commonly known as “Sanctuary Woods.” Initially there was little opposition and the decision seemed a foregone conclusion.

Then Ald. Jason Wilke proposed what he called a “friendly amendment” that would add new protections to not only the two parcels stipulated in the original motion but also to the Wil-O-Way Woods property north of Swan Boulevard. This proposal was met with some confusion and Berdan refused to accept the “friendly amendment” to her motion. Wilke then moved to amend the motion without the “friendly” designation, which led to a lively discussion about the intent and feasibility of adding the protection.

Wil-O-Way Woods, DNR State Forest
Autumn in Wil-O-Way Woods, DNR State Forest; Photo by Eddee Daniel

The public is clearly disturbed by the part of the plan that involves these three parcels, Wilke explained, and protecting them would serve to reassure people and allow the rest of the plan to move forward. This clarification seemed to satisfy the committee members. The audience listened with rapt attention as nearly every member of the committee expressed agreement in principle with the intent to protect the land. Causier summed up the sentiments by saying “none of us want to see anything going in there,” referring to development on the three parcels.

Spring in Sanctuary Woods
Spring in Sanctuary Woods; Photo by Eddee Daniel

The final hurdle to acceptance was a consideration of the city’s role in providing permanent protection. City Attorney Alan Kesner explained that permanent protection required more than zoning, which is within the purview of the city. A conservation easement or other instrument of protection would require consent of the landowners – Milwaukee County and the State of Wisconsin. While acknowledging the possibility of resistance, in the end the committee voted unanimously to include Wilke’s amendment to do “whatever it takes to preserve in perpetuity” the three parcels.

It was a stunning development in the now yearlong controversy over the Life Sciences District Master Plan, and the committee’s decision was met with loud applause from the audience.

The decision means that the scheduled May 15 meeting of the Plan Commission and others will be canceled or postponed until the conditions of Tuesday night’s decision have been met. If they are not met, the issue can be expected to come up again  in the future. However, the Community Affairs Committee is on record with a vote to save the County Grounds.

Attention now turns to Milwaukee County, where the decision to act on the Community Affairs Committee decision rests. There is a meeting of the County Board Committee on Parks, Energy and the Environment at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, May 16, at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, 901 N. 9th Street, room 201.



Eddee Daniel is a Milwaukee-based photographer and writer. His work explores the intersection of nature and human culture. A graduate of the UW-Madison and UWM, he brings to his current practice more than 30 years of experience teaching art and writing about nature. He is the author of "Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed," a visual and narrative tribute to Milwaukee’s Menomonee River. Eddee writes two blogs: Urban Wilderness and Arts Without Borders. He serves on the Board of Directors of Preserve Our Parks. You can email him at