Wauwatosa's Sanctuary Woods Debate Bubbles Up in Milwaukee County

May 17, 2017

Debate over a small wooded parcel in Wauwatosa, commonly called Sanctuary Woods, has been brewing for months. The 22-acre parcel lies within a much larger area that city leaders envision as the Life Sciences District.

On Tuesday, Wauwatosa's controversial plan came up at the Milwaukee County Park, Energy and Environment committee meeting. The room spilled over with people and the committee chair quickly arranged an extra room so folks wouldn’t have to sit on the floor.

And although they had to wait a couple of hours for the County Grounds item to come up, most people didn’t budge. The residents want their rapidly-developing city to maintain as much parkland as possible.

“What Wauwatosa’s requesting we do, so that they can put their planning process back on track, is survey the parcel that contains the woods, rezone the woods as park, then place permanent preservation protections on the wooded area and on the County Grounds,” James Tarantino said. He’s the county director of economic development.

To provide a bit of context, Wauwatosa seemed to be moving full steam ahead at finalizing its Life Sciences District plan – 1200 acres that supporters say will blend development and greenspace. A key piece of that space is Sanctuary Woods, teaming with wildlife and old growth trees.

Last week, a Tosa committee tabled further discussion to allow a few issues to be ironed out.

On Tuesday, a coalition of citizens urged Milwaukee County Supervisors to do anything they could to designate Sanctuary Woods and nearby natural areas as county park – and to preserve every inch of parkland on the Ground Grounds.

Resident Michael Bognar said he became involved in the future of the County Grounds as a UW-Milwaukee student. “As a way to exercise my civic duty as a young man. And I noticed one thing consistent throughout every meeting. I was by far the youngest person in the room,” he said.

 "I wanted to let you all know the sentiment that is expressed by citizens who have been here for 30 plus year is also echoed by the citizens who haven’t even been around for thirty years,” Bognar added..

Many people who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting offered to help physically maintain the parkland’s paths and habitat.

Economic development director Tarantino said the entire planning process must be one of involvement and compromise.

“An attempt to balance the need to develop a property tax base in the city because the city is 39 percent property-tax exempt and the need to preserve parks. So I would pose the question that if people are very concerned about the woods and the future of the woods, we have a serious conversation about forming a friends group, or some other financial means of leveraging the community to help take care of this space. We need to be conscious of the parks department’s limitation to take care of its current park system,” he explained.

Throughout much of the hearing however, committee members seemed to be wondering what role they play in this issue. Since, Milwaukee County cannot rezone land in Wauwatosa - that task falls to the city itself.

Yet Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman’s comment drew a swell of applause. “I just want to make a statement, during this process that you’re working with Wauwatosa, my vote is for preservation. I mean, you look at the map and I just don’t understand the need to keep on whittling away at what little we have,” he said

While the debate in Wauwatosa continues to swirl over how development and habitat can coexist, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission is surveying the Sanctuary Woods parcel to quantify its environmentally sensitive areas.