Developer says he'll ask Milton to annex thousands of acres for industrial park

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Neil Johnson
Friday, January 10, 2014

MILTON—Developer and landowner Bill Watson said as early as next week he'll petition the city of Milton for annexation of 1,200 acres west of Milton he has earmarked for a proposed industrial park.

It's the latest development in a sweeping plan Watson unveiled last month to bankroll an Interstate 90/39 interchange at County M west of Milton. He wants to turn adjacent farmland he owns in Milton and Fulton townships into an industrial park that he said could eventually employ thousands of people.

Watson, a California resident and a Milton-area native who owns Mulder Dairy Farms, is in preliminary stages of assembling an interchange access justification report required for state Department of Transportation and federal highway authorities' approval for an interchange.

Watson has spent recent weeks meeting with state DOT officials to discuss the viability of a County M interchange. In December, he gave a proposal to town of Fulton residents and officials on updates for his plans.

Watson has yet to formally apply for annexation or for any zoning changes linked to his development plan, but he plans to give town of Fulton and Milton officials an update at town meetings next week.

Among the topics Watson said he plans to bring up include potential annexation of the land he and some adjacent landowners into the city of Milton.

“One of the things that we've talked about with (the Milton and Fulton) town chairmen (Bryan Meyer and Evan Sayre), and with the city of Milton is having the city annex the properties and do the rezonings that would allow the development to occur,” Watson said. “That (request) will come after the meetings, unless there's something discovered in the meetings that there isn't a political will to do this.”

Watson said one reason he wants to petition for annexation is because he believes the city may be able to rezone and approve an industrial park more quickly than the towns of Milton and Fulton.

“With the townships, it's possible their process—where they'd have to make changes for what they've done in their own smart growth plans—it would take them maybe as much as a year or maybe even more to get zoning (changes) completed,” he said.

Watson said he plans to offer up to $5,000 for town work necessary for potential rezoning.

The city of Milton has an extraterritorial agreement with the town of Milton, which allows the two municipalities to forge intergovernmental agreements on land use, but it's not clear whether the city has authority to annex much of the land in question—more than half of which is in the town of Fulton.   

One main question, Watson said, is: “If all of the land is annexed into the city of Milton, and those lands are taken out of the townships, how does that work for the townships? How do they (the towns) have any control over what goes on, and more importantly, what kind of sharing do they have for the tax revenues (from an industrial park)?”

At meetings next week, Watson said, he could bring up the potential for a “cooperative agreement” that could split tax revenue between the towns the the city of Milton and what methods might be used to form such cooperation.

Plans Watson has outlined in recent weeks show an eventual 4 million to 5 million square feet of industrial space, with developments in an initial phase that could include two industrial facilities totaling 300,000 square feet and 750,000 square feet. 

Watson has estimated the development, which he said he'd fund and develop under a corporation of investors, could eventually bring in $200 million to $250 million in additional tax base.

A project of that scope is unheard of in Rock County. For one, the land in question is privately owned, with Watson owning most of it. For another, Watson has offered to initially fund for development costs, including planning and constructing an interchange at County M, and installing utility, road and rail infrastructure.

Milton Mayor Brett Frazier said city council members are supportive of an interchange at County M. He said the city views the prospect of development of industry on the west edge of Milton as “exciting.”

Frazier, who sparked talks with Watson last fall over the prospect of an interchange at County M, said the city is still in a wait-and-see mode and has not committed to wading into large-scale talks over annexation until a request is made and more details of Watson's plans emerge.

“The developer is very much in the driver's seat of determining how the annexation is approached,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state continues to work with Watson on his request for an Interstate interchange.

Department of Transportation Supervisor John Vesperman, who is in charge of the I-90/39 lane expansion project set to start in 2015, said the Department of Transportation has scheduled monthly meetings with Watson and his consultants to get updates on the status of Watson's interchange justification report and offer technical review.

When news of the proposed interchange first surfaced, Watson and other developers said they would pay for the interchange justification report. This week, Watson said he suggested the state DOT or the federal government do the justification report if that would speed the process.

Vesperman said that's not likely.

“We're partnering, but it's a locally interested and developer-driven effort, and it's their (the developers') job to get an (access) report done,” Vesperman said.

While Watson has said he'd like to break ground on the interchange this spring, Vesperman said he's told Watson that goal is “extremely optimistic.”

It usually takes 12 to 16 months for the state and federal governments to approve an interchange.

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