Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Lake Park Neighbors Seek Control of Bluff

Wahl Ave. residents have already clear cut top of bluff, now want special access to all of it.

By - Nov 8th, 2022 05:18 pm
Lake Park bluff. Photo taken Aug. 24, 2022 by Graham Kilmer.

Lake Park bluff. Photo taken Aug. 24, 2022 by Graham Kilmer.

A number of residents living along Lake Park say they should have the right to clear vegetation from the face of a four-acre bluff adjacent to their homes. The county’s attorney says prove it.

Now, they may not have to. Their representative on the county board, Sup. Sheldon Wasserman has authored an amendment to the Milwaukee County budget that would give these residents and the local friends group, Lake Park Friends “the right, in perpetuity, to fix, repair, and maintain bluffs and other parkland areas abutting or overlapping their property lines in the deed restricted area along the bluffs of Wahl Avenue.”

Wasserman’s amendment references “legal obligations” the county has, according to the deed that gave the land to the county in the first place. Wasserman said there is a deed restriction that requires the county to “maintain and beautify the bluff.” The supervisor said that because the parks department is underfunded and understaffed it has not been able to fulfill these legal requirements, and therefore the residents should have the right to maintain and beautify the bluff. There is a group of residents, he said, “who want to weed, go over the bluff and basically beautify and maintain the bluff.”

The residents would pay for the landscaping work themselves, Wasserman said. What’s more, if the county doesn’t allow this, according to Wasserman, “There will be a lawsuit defining this and I don’t think we should spend money on lawsuits.”

Most of the parkland owned by Milwaukee County was at one point deeded to it, and many of the parks were originally owned by the City of Milwaukee. Given this, complicated land use and ownership disputes are not uncommon for the department. Jeremy Lucas, director of administration and planning for Milwaukee County Parks, said the department at times has to work to understand all the obligations carried by the various real estate transactions the department has engaged in in its history.

Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun  told supervisors there are many historical real estate documents her office is still working through. But she said, “We do not necessarily agree with the premise underlying the proposed amendment, which is that there should be some special arrangement or special rights granted to these particular residents for this purpose.” 

Parks, too, has issues with the amendment. Specifically, that it is a budget amendment that would grant these land rights forever. “This is not usually how we grant land rights to third parties,” Lucas said. “Specifically, we’ve been trying to get away from things like ‘in perpetuity’ as that provides us with a lack of flexibility moving forward.”

Daun also warned against that proposed language, saying, “It would never be” her office’s advice “to grant easements of the kind contemplated here in perpetuity.” She also noted that the language regarding what residents would be able to do in perpetuity was far too vague. We don’t know what ‘fix, repair and maintain’ means,” she said. “What if their version of fix repair and maintain includes trimming their trees to such a degree that the tree dies and the root system has to be removed?”

Daun illustrated the legal dilemma posed by Wasserman’s amendment and the Wahl Avenue residents as, “If I happen to have a property that abuts parkland, and I don’t like my view; if I happen to have a lot of dollars, does that mean I have a right to access parkland and trim the trees down so I have a view, absent some legally binding document from years past?”

The residents have already engaged in some clearcutting on the bluff. Lucas told Urban Milwaukee that the residents were granted authorization this past summer for this work under an agreement from more than a decade ago when the parks department was under former director Sue Black. But this agreement only covered a narrow strip of land at the top of the bluff abutting Wahl Ave. and totaling 1.9 acres. What the residents want access to is the rest of the bluff all the way down to Lincoln Memorial Dr., a four-acre strip of land.

Lake Park bluff site map. Map from Milwaukee County Parks.

Lake Park bluff site map. Map from Milwaukee County Parks.

Urban Milwaukee observed the bluff on Aug. 24 and again on Sept. 23 and recorded that a significant amount of vegetation at the top of the bluff face had been clear cut. Based upon a map shown to Urban Milwaukee by the parks department, residents have clear cut vegetation on the bluff within the strip of land they are legally allowed under the old agreement. The trees and plant life untouched on the bluff-face fall within the larger four-acre strip of land running down to Lincoln Memorial Drive.

In some areas, the de-vegetation opened up the sightline from the top of the bluff to Bradford beach and the shoreline below. But in other areas, the trees and plant life remaining on the bluff obstructed the view.

“We want to adhere to the coastal management guidelines this body adopted for parkland and all of the coast in the county as a way to make sure that we are fully protected from erosion and bluff stabilization,” Lucas said. ” The bottom of this property carries some very important infrastructure including but not limited to Lincoln Memorial Drive.”

In recent years, parks, corporation counsel and these residents have been going back and forth on the issue, Wasserman said, and the residents would like the access and unique land use rights granted before next spring. “And I think the Office of Corporation Counsel has kind of moved into somewhat of a political role there,” Wasserman said. “I appreciate her legal opinions. But we’re the political people who make decisions.”

I dispute the premise, from a legal perspective, that anyone has concluded, other than the residents of Wahl Avenue, that this is a legally recognizable right that they enjoy,” Daun said. “So whether we want to create a new one, or the board does, at this point in time, indeed is a political decision that I have nothing to say about.”

The Finance Committee voted four to three to approve the amendment, with only Supervisors Shawn Rolland, Sequanna Taylor and committee Chair Liz Sumner voting against.

Categories: MKE County, Parks, Weekly

7 thoughts on “MKE County: Lake Park Neighbors Seek Control of Bluff”

  1. Colin says:

    Do they want bluff erosion? Because this is how ya get it.
    Who’s going to pay for the road when it caves in / mudslides off?
    These neighbors are ridiculous.

  2. Day el B says:

    Maintain and beautify is in the eye of the beholder. Parkland does not mean a clear cut field, devoid of all vegetation. I would personally prefer a buffer for wildlife, rainwater capture, and a bit of wild greenery in our urban environment.

    Seeing how this is public land, I don’t know why this entitled group of people are being allowed to dictate the rules to suit them.

    If individuals are going to have the right to use this land as they want, I would suggest a 3 season tent park, set up to support Milwaukee’s homeless population. The views would be amazing.

  3. Wardt01 says:

    Unmitigated growth (aka “doing nothing”) eventually leads to issues as well (such as invasive species that prevent grasses from developing) & overcrowding of trees can lead to instability issues because every sapling is fighting for the same sunlight (ie: overcrowding causes a zillion trees to grow real tall but they are toothpicks… , instead of properly spaced trees that can grow wide & are strong enough to support their canopy & proper spacing allows for development of deep/wide root systems).

    Invasives & overgrowth prevent grasses from growing, which is likely the biggest concern for that slope up from LMD to Wahl. We need grasses to maintain the slope stability & grasses help prevent soil erosion during heavy rains.

    There are an abundance of resources available from the NRCS (which are primarily written for farmland owners) and the WI DNR and WI DOT. they all pretty much adhere to the same criteria & design specs.

    The frontpage of NRCS web page is currently all about soil stability related topics:

    Doing nothing does not make sense, and I’d wager that the invasive buckthorn has taken over most of that area already if County hasn’t been maintaining it.

    The County obviously does not have the resources…. why not partner with the landowners along with UWM School of Freshwater Science or MSOE, and The Urban Ecology Center or The Water Council 501c3 HQ’d right here in Milwaukee?

    We have NGO resources & universities in Milwaukee that can likely access grants if they became involved!

    Further, it’s problematic when govt employees are entrenched in the fear of change, or fear of letting go of their control. Additional concern relates to the statement from Mr. Wasserman “we’re the political people who make decisions.” when this article leads me to understand he has not explored partnering with any of the engineering schools or NGO’s HQ’d here in Milwaukee.

    if indeed our elected County Representative’s only want to pursue Plan A, then;

    Solution to the “perpetuity” issue is to simply state a given timeframe in this amendment.

    Solution to the “will they just clear-cut” or “what if they cause damage” concerns is to state any work performed must “adhere to the coastal management guidelines” that Jeremy Lucas, director of administration and planning for Milwaukee County Parks had referenced in this article… OR…. that work performed must be approved by the Director.

  4. Neal Brenard says:

    Leave it to Sheldon Wasserman to invent new rights for his wealthy homeowner friends along the lakeshore here while ignoring the ridiculous precedent it would set to deliver them to this select group of rich elites. He surely knows that what he proposes has no chance of succeeding.. And no, these residents will do nothing to maintain the bluff. As a long time east side MKE resident I have never seen any of these folks working outside on their own yards, much less “volunteering” to take care of anything else without personal gain. Sure they’ll hire contractors to cut down and clear more trees and natural vegetation and further ruin the bluff in an attempt to increase the value of their real estate investments across the street. But they do not own Lake Park, nor the bluff, whether of few of them call themselves friends of it or not. The clearcut of trees at the top of the bluff several years ago was a crime. The lakefront belongs to everyone. This has been settled repeatedly by law and courts from the beginning of state history.

    Hey, I’d like to annex open lands across the street from where I live too, since I live here and I could say that I’ll be a better steward of it than a public agency. Who wouldn’t. But I live in the real world where it doesn’t work that way–and good thing it doesn’t.

  5. gerrybroderick says:

    However well intended this proposed amendment might be, if passed, it would set an dangerous precedent. The current agreement authored under Parks Director Sue Black is sufficient to deal with the neighbor’s concerns. Expanding that agreement would be an irreversible mistake.

  6. nickzales says:

    If they want to control this land, then send them a property tax bill for it. I agree with all the comments above.

  7. Marty Ellenbecker says:

    Most of what is stupid about this idea is covered in the above comments.

    The Wahl Street residents haven’t a clue how lucky they are with the view they’ve got.
    Science has proven the physical and psychological benefits of a green and natural environment for humans. It’s part of our evolutionary imprint.
    Maybe some humans don’t have the genes to appreciate it.

    Given our varied ethnicities and places of origin,, we can’t re-create everyone’s evolutionary imprint, but the aforementioned benefits were found in all greened and treed environments.

    If trees growing near or visible from the street were eliminated, the remaining view would be plain lawn up to a narrow band of lake and a straight horizon – the kind of place artists and photographers wouldn’t give a 2nd glance.

    Colin spoke of erosion. It would probably be a good idea to check the hydrological characteristics of all of the park. It’s already had mudslides, and if I remember right they were in areas with denser vegetation than that under discussion. About 10 years ago Milwaukee had a 1-hour / 7 inch rainfall. Roughly 20 years ago, we experienced two 100-year rainfalls with approximately one day between them.

    Climate collapse is sure to provide worse than that in the future. It would be good to know now what combination of vegetation has the best soil holding ability for the park when things hit the fan.

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