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River Hills not ready to cut to chase on tree-clearing controversy

Trustees will discuss again next month

Aug. 23, 2007

For now, the question of whether the Milwaukee Country Club violated a River Hills village ordinance when it cut trees and shrubs along the Milwaukee River has been set aside for more discussion.

After the Village Board heard conflicting reports about the impact and legality of the private golf club's action, trustees last week decided to lay over the issue - as well as a related debate about whether the ordinance itself should be strengthened - until 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19, at Village Hall, 7650 N. Pheasant Lane.

A village ordinance prohibits any cutting in a buffer zone along the riverbanks that substantially impairs plants and animals.

Officials have been wrestling with the controversy for more than a year.

Trustees recently were presented with reports from the village engineer and from a river expert, both saying that the cutting was not a violation and, in fact, may be better for the environment. Based on those reports, Village Attorney William Dineen said he does not believe the village can proceed with any kind of enforcement.

Expert analysis

John Wiater, stream/wetland ecologist from Northern Environmental Technologies Inc., who examined the river at the 14th and 15th holes where it was cleared, concluded in his report: "If any adverse effects existed following the tree removal activities, they were likely only short-lived and were essentially nonexistent once the native vegetation became re-established. … It appears that the removal of the larger trees has facilitated the growth and establishment of a relatively diverse wetland and upland riparian vegetative community."

Wiater said he saw no evidence of bank erosion.

Village Engineer Robert Elkin, also of Northern Environmental, went even further in his conclusion: "It is also my opinion that the new vegetative cover established after the trees and shrubs were removed is more effective in filtering out fertilizers and other suspended solids and has a positive effect on quality of stormwater runoff entering the Milwaukee River."

Committee counters claims

However, citing reports of its own experts among its membership, the village's Committee on the Environment said the cutting violated an environmental ordinance and that the reports to the contrary contain errors.

"There were so many errors, omissions and inconsistencies," said Fred Vogel, a committee member and an outspoken critic of the Milwaukee Country Club actions. "We need to provide the village attorney with convincing evidence of violations and then sit down and work for a beneficial solution."

The result of the cutting is noticeable, Vogel said.

"The banks have been stripped clean," he said at last month's Village Board meeting, describing the extent of cutting at the 15th hole, where he guessed as much as 65 percent of the wildlife habitat has been destroyed. "What's left is monoculture grass. The habitat is gone."

At the 13th hole, Vogel estimated, about 95 percent of the undergrowth is gone.

Cheryl Nenn, of the Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers, wrote in a letter to the board that substantial impairment has already happened.

"The riparian vegetation was destroyed, as well as habitat for wildlife or 'fauna' using the river corridor," she wrote. "In addition to being unsightly, the banks are already displaying instability as a result of the tree removal, causing sediment to enter the Milwaukee River.

"Removal of vegetation has also inevitably resulted in increased stormwater runoff from the golf course, contributing more pollutants such as fertilizers and pesticides and increasing runoff volumes."

Christopher Boettcher, Milwaukee Country Club general manager, said the club had no comment.

The need for another expert?

Other environmental experts on the committee also spoke at the board meeting.

William Wawrzyn, fisheries biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, speaking unofficially, said he reviewed the two reports and would be happy to give his insights if the board requested them.

No one did, even after attorney David Meany, hired privately by those fighting the cutting, urged the board to see if the DNR expert could point out any shortcomings in the reports.

Wawrzyn said he has expertise in river restoration and conservation and has studied this area of the Milwaukee River since 1975. He has testified in regulatory issues for the DNR, he said.

After the meeting, Village President Robert Brunner asked the village manager to speak to Wawrzyn about the reports.

Club members on board

At least three of the seven-member Village Board are Milwaukee Country Club members. The new trustee the board appointed last week, David Fritz Jr., is on the golf club's board of directors, but was not present for the latest discussion.

Trustees Randall Perry and Richard Glaisner, both club members, were the only two officials who voted against a motion to take up the matter again in September, saying the reports offered by the village engineer and one river expert were evidence enough for them.

Glaisner said he didn't want to discuss the issue and strongly opposes strengthening the ordinance.

Dineen said there was no conflict of interest in trustees who are also club members participating in a vote to delay the matter until next month, because the vote did not involve a substantive decision.

Dineen pointed to Wisconsin Ethics Board guidelines that would really only apply to the newest trustee who is on the country club's board of directors.

The guidelines say that officials should not take official action on anything in which they, their immediate family members or an organization on which they sit on the board of directors would have a substantial financial interest.

Jane Ford-Stewart can be reached at (262) 446-6607 or jford@cninow.com.

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