County M interchange proposal hinges on Milton sponsorship
EDGERTON--Progress on developer Bill Watson's plans to build a County M interchange and industrial park is at a near standstill, hinging on the city of Milton's response to two requests: a pre-annexation meeting and sponsorship.
Watson said he has support from the right landowners and is ready to file a petition for annexation.
If the city approved the 2,000-acre annexation for the development, the move would signal the city's sponsorship of the project, Milton City Administrator Alan Hulick said.
Hulick said the city needs more information and at least one more meeting with Watson and his design team before setting up a pre-annexation meeting.
“Until we have those candid conversations about costs, it would be premature,” Hulick said.
Sponsorship is necessary because state and federal officials defined the proposed development as a local interest project. This means Watson needs a taxing authority to guarantee funding, according to state and federal officials.
Watson, who owns Janesville-based Mulder Dairy Farms and hundreds of acres of land earmarked for the proposed development, adamantly has said he would pay for the project.
The interchange at I-90/39 and County M in the towns of Milton and Fulton is estimated to cost between $6 million and $15 million.
Watson has promised to leave the city with no financial liability.
It's been nearly a year since Watson introduced the idea, saying the development could bring thousands of jobs and millions of square feet of industrial developments to Milton.
Some residents near the proposed development oppose the idea, fearing it would bring truck traffic, heavy development and gravel pits.
Others support the proposal, saying it could add $20 million in tax revenue to the city.
Hulick, who is up to speed on the proposal from his time as economic development coordinator for the city of Janesville, said the city of Milton still has concerns.
“We're not in a position to give that sponsorship right now,” Hulick said.
Without sponsorship, the project's required reports can't move forward because a sponsor must pay for the work, DOT official Jon Vesperman said.
The reports, which are being put together by Watson's consultants and must be approved by the state Department of Transportation and federal highway officials, include an interchange access justification report and an environmental report.
The justification report supports the need for a new access point and would include the effect the project would have on the Interstate system and local traffic near development.
Watson's consultants working on the report said it is about 90 percent complete.
The second report is an environmental report that basically lays the foundation of the project's design and assesses its environmental impact, Vesperman said.
That report encompasses much more and will take much longer to complete, Vesperman said.
Hulick agreed it's a Catch-22 situation with the reports: The information could be what the city needs before agreeing to sponsorship, but the reports can't be completed until a sponsor is identified.
A public meeting Thursday between state Department of Transportation officials, Hulick, three city council members and Watson and his consultants seemed to shed no more light on the proposed project than what has already been established: The city wants more specifics before it agrees to become the sponsor and is willing to annex the land.
Watson said he hoped the meeting could ease some of the city's fears about its financial liability.
“The city came here for answers,” said Lynda Clark, a council member in favor of the interchange.
After the meeting, Watson acknowledged that some of the city's fears and questions remained.
Hulick said the city would need a much greater degree of certainty before setting up a pre-annexation meeting.
“We have to go into this with our eyes wide open,” Hulick said.
It would be “entirely unlikely” for the city to annex the land before it agrees to become the project's sponsor, Hulick said.
Watson and his attorney have been contacting city officials for months to set up a pre-annexation meeting, Watson said.
He has the support from landowners and the money to pay for the annexation petition, which would cost about $80,000 for the state to review, Watson said.
Upon the request of the city's attorney, Watson has held off on submitting the petition until the city of Milton agrees to a pre-annexation meeting, Watson said.
The city has put off pre-annexation discussions due to a short staff, Mayor Brett Frazier has said.
Annexation will speed up the process of planning and zoning of Watson's proposed development ahead of expansion of I-90/39 between Beloit and Madison starting in 2015, Watson has said.
The area also would have to be in the city's jurisdiction if Milton were to become the project's sponsor.
Watson is seeking direct annexation by unanimous approval, which requires Watson and any other landowners of the properties in question to sign an annexation petition, according to state statutes.
The annexation would need to be contiguous to Milton. Contiguity is a term loosely defined in state statutes as “some significant degree of physical contact” between two properties.
Watson owns every parcel of the proposed development area except two. One piece of land needed for contiguity is owned by the Hull farm bordering County Y and the rail spur on Milton's south end.
The other is owned by the Coats farm in the southeast corridor of County M and the Interstate.
Both land owners have agreed to sign an annexation petition, Watson said.
Chris Coats said he would be willing to sell his land, but it would have to be an offer way above market value.
“He's been trying to buy the farm for the last 15 years or so,” Coats said.
Kerry Hull said also he would be willing to sell his land at the right price.
Watson has not made an offer to either of the men for their land, and no deals have been made, Coats and Hull said.
What's Plan B?
If the city of Milton denies Watson's request to set up a pre-annexation meeting, it's unclear what Watson's next move would be.
Watson has said this project is too important to let die.
Watson could legally annex the land into Edgerton or Janesville, he said.
But Watson said it's important for the development to take place in Milton.
“This is where it should be,” Watson said.
Some residents near the proposed development disagree.
About a half-dozen community members grilled Watson at Thursday's meeting on whether he has thought about the impact on local roads, his desire to mine gravel and past developments.
“You're not going to do it in our community,” one resident said.