An appeal to save Seminary Woods and adjoining grasslands for generations
January 30, 2009
Guest Editorial by Kathy Mulvey
As citizens of Wisconsin and the world, we can never forgive ourselves if we let the Seminary Woods be choked to death by development.
Seminary Woods is about 60 acres of old-growth beech and maple forest that represents the last existing tract in Milwaukee County of what Wisconsin was like before European settlement. Together with the adjacent grasslands owned by We Energies, Seminary Woods is listed in the Wisconsin Land Legacy Report as one of the most important natural sites in Wisconsin in need of protection and preservation.
The 84-acre We Energies land runs to the south and west of the Cousins Center property, from Packard and Howard avenues right up to Seminary Woods. Tons of coal ash, asbestos, and other contaminants are buried throughout the center of this land and capped with clay. Fifteen inches of soil have been placed on top of the cap. The land has been marked as undevelopable, because no foundations can be dug that would pierce the cap.
Since no developer has wanted to take on an expensive cleanup of the We Energies land, it was set aside in 2004 as a green-space buffer to Seminary Woods. Letters from We Energies, St. Francis Seminary, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) support this understanding.
What has happened on the We Energies land in the past several years, however, is nothing short of a miracle.
- It has provided 84 acres of precious green space and wildlife habitat to the surrounding neighborhoods, and in fact, is the only unmanicured green space left in the city of St. Francis and the last grassland and wildlife habitat of its size in Milwaukee County.
- Birdwatchers and other nature lovers have found it a delightful place to walk and observe flora and fauna.
- It has become an important migratory stopover, where songbirds that are in steep decline in Wisconsin are regularly sighted.
- It is one of only four places in all of Wisconsin where the dickcissel, a cross-billed finch, has been sited in the last 40 years.
- Various frogs, toads, turtles, snakes, and salamanders are evidenced in the spring.
- Great horned owls, coyotes, foxes, and other predators that live in Seminary Woods use the land for hunting, and deer and other animals forage there.
- The land contains several wetlands, and the rare nodding lady’s tresses orchid grows there. The state-endangered bluestem goldenrod, as well as more than 30 varieties of spring wildflowers and literally hundreds of different plants, grow on the land and in the adjoining Seminary Woods.
- The 84 acres have been available to absorb rain, snowmelt, and storm runoff. This is important because the city of St. Francis has a separated sewerage system, which pipes runoff directly into Lake Michigan without treatment. However, we now know that storm runoff is just as damaging to the lake-though in a different way-as is raw sewage.
In short, the We Energies land has become, in concert with Seminary Woods, a natural area worthy of protection in its own right.
Last summer, when Cardinal Stritch University proposed purchasing the 45-acre Cousins Center to build a south campus, environmental groups that have worked for decades to protect Seminary Woods were cautiously optimistic. The Cousins Center property eventually will be developed in some way, and a university campus seemed a good way to use that land. In addition, it would be a homecoming for the college, which was started in nearby buildings that now house the Marian Center just to the north of St. Francis Seminary. Environmentalists had reason to believe that Stritch-a Franciscan institution-would be sensitive to the fragility of Seminary Woods and the surrounding land. The Sisters of St. Francis have long been allies in protecting Seminary Woods.
Unfortunately, when Stritch unveiled its preliminary site plan in mid-November, it was revealed that the university planned to purchase not only the Cousins Center, but also the We Energies land. The new 129-acre campus eventually would serve a projected 1,800 undergraduate students and 440 faculty and staff. Stritch’s preliminary site proposal shows virtually every bit of the campus containing some building or development.
Five of the proposed 10 new buildings on the Cousins Center property would be built directly adjacent to Seminary Woods. The We Energies land would be covered with an athletic complex containing five athletic fields, a stadium, a fieldhouse, and a 558-car parking lot, all with connecting roads.
This plan would complete the noose of development that already encircles Seminary Woods on three sides.
Stritch spokespeople vow that they will not harm one twig in Seminary Woods. However, a number of meetings with the Stritch team reveals that they simply refuse to believe that the woods can be harmed, and indeed choked to death, by destroying the We Energies land and introducing thousands of people, thousands of cars with the attendant roads and parking facilities, bright athletic-field and parking-structure lights, and crowd noise.
The environmental coalition has offered alternatives to an athletic complex on the We Energies land. Directly across the street in Bay View Park, there are two soccer fields. A few blocks to the south is Greene Park, with underused baseball facilities. These may not meet NCAA standards, but the university could work with Milwaukee County Parks to upgrade them. Within spitting distance is St. Thomas More High School, which boasts a complete athletic complex. Might they work out a deal to share some of these facilities? Two soccer fields exist right now on the Cousins Center property, immediately adjacent to Seminary Woods. In Stritch’s plan, they will be replaced with an 800-car parking structure and a fieldhouse. Three multi-story residence halls would be built closer to Lake Drive, all very close to Seminary Woods.
The simple fact that Stritch would consider building five multi-story buildings so close to Seminary Woods proclaims a lack of environmental sensitivity. Tall buildings near woods can shade edges and alter the microclimate by affecting wind, sunshine, and humidity. Stritch says they want to use the woods to help build an environmental studies program. Unfortunately, their treatment of this sensitive property will be a textbook example of what not to do to protect the environment.
There are many other issues of concern:
- The Wisconsin DNR already has committed funding to an environmental coalition that has been working for two years to purchase Seminary Woods and place it in a conservancy. Yet Stritch’s proposal includes about eight acres of the woods that were to be included in the conservancy. What will this mean to the Seminary Woods conservancy idea?
- Soils disturbed by construction equipment and increased human activity are susceptible to invasive species, such as garlic mustard, poison hemlock, Japanese knotweed, glossy buckthorn, and reed canary grass. A significant increase in human presence will foster the spread of invasive species and destroy native wildflowers.
- What provisions are being considered for the at-least 1,000 additional vehicles each day that will stream through St. Francis and Bay View, along Oklahoma, Superior/Lake Drive, Howell and Packard?
- In the current economic crisis, the question must be posed: What happens if Stritch purchases the properties but then is not able to raise the $150 to $200 million they project they will need to complete the project? If St. Francis rezones to a PUD, would any new purchaser have just as free a hand as Cardinal Stritch University will have?
- Stritch will pay no property taxes, yet its proposed community of about 2,300 people will certainly need police and fire protection, water and sewer services, trash pickup and landfill, adding stress not only to St. Francis, but also to the Lake Michigan shoreline and the entire region.
- How does Stritch propose to set up athletic-facility lighting, stadium seating, and a fieldhouse without piercing the clay cap on the We Energies land? Even without piercing the cap, what effects will the increased weight of cars, facilities, and crowds have on the cap?
- Although athletic fields may not be considered hardcore development by some, the fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides that would run off the fields would further poison wetland, grasslands, and wildlife habitat.
All of these issues need careful consideration by all of the people who will be affected. However, the city of St. Francis has been trying to ram through a zoning change from mixed use/residential (R3) to a planned unit development (PUD).
Further, St. Francis officials have refused to even listen seriously to anybody who is not a resident of their city, even though many property owners in the cities of Milwaukee and Cudahy would be affected by the current plans. When a member of the South Shore Park Watch called a St. Francis alderperson, the alderperson said she was going to hang up because she would not listen to what a non-St. Francis resident had to say on this issue. Yes, the public hearing is open to all, but non-residents of St. Francis will not be able to speak until all city residents who want to speak have spoken. Mayor Richards even told a member of our coalition he was trying to find a legal way to keep anybody outside of St. Francis from speaking.
People come from far and wide to enjoy and wonder at the Seminary Woods and adjacent grasslands. Yet all of us are held hostage by the city of St. Francis with its almighty zoning power.
A public hearing was to be held Jan. 5, when most people had been distracted by the holidays, and the St. Francis Common Council planned to vote on the measure Jan. 6. However, the hearing had to be postponed when about 400 people showed up. The hearing room holds only about 200 people.
A new hearing is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 2, at 6:30pm, in the St. Francis High School auditorium. According to news reports, the council will vote on the zoning change at the end of the hearing.
Everybody who cares about Seminary Woods and the environment in general has a stake in this issue. Once Seminary Woods and the grasslands are gone, there is no bringing them back. Please attend the hearing and please speak up for Seminary Woods and the adjoining grasslands. Better to put ourselves forward now than to lose these treasures and regret it for the rest of our lives and the lives of our children, grandchildren, and all generations to come.
Kathy Mulvey is president of the South Shore Park Watch.
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