Some residents not on board with County M development

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, February 1, 2014

MILTON—Not everyone's on board with a proposal for a County M interchange and a 1,500-acre industrial park west of Milton.

A group of about a dozen residents, most who live in a residential subdivision just west of the planned development, have formed an opposition group dubbed “STOP the Interchange and Industrial Park and County M and Interstate 90/39.”

The group is against plans and the speed at which landowner and developer Bill Watson seeks to turn thousands of acres of farmland mixed with country residences into an industrial area that could bring heavy development, truck traffic, and some believe, gravel pits.

The group also questions why town of Fulton, town of Milton and city of Milton officials have held public talks with Watson but haven't allowed residents much, if any, opportunity to comment on his plans.

In a recent interview, The Gazette heard concerns from the opposition group. One member, Bill Chwala, who lives in a wooded subdivision on East Pineview Court, summed things up.

“We're not against development, but agriculture is what's already here. Agriculture is industry, too. Why change that?” he said.

For his sweeping development to work, Watson has said over and over that a “political will” must exist.

It's hard to quantify the true level of public opposition or support for Watson's plans, in part because the public hasn't had a forum to speak out.

But Bill Chwala's daughter Luci Chwala said she knows dozens of residents who say they can't wait to uncork their sentiments in public.

It's cut-and-dried, Chwala said.

“We don't want this. Go away.”

Big Rush?

In the last two months, Watson has staged three informational meetings at the towns of Milton and Fulton and the city of Milton to pitch his ideas and make pleas for local governments to smooth and speed re-zoning processes.

So far, Watson has supplied an annexation map and a set of diagrams that block off areas along County M and I-90/39, where he says he'd develop two large industrial structures for the initial phase of his plan.

As of last week, Watson had supplied no re-zoning applications and no application to the city of Milton for annexation. And there are no clear signs that Watson's request to the state and federal government for a privately funded interchange at County M will fly.

Yet, he's pressing the city of Milton to agree to “let him in” by annexing into the city 1,500 acres he's earmarked for development.

Watson believes city annexation would signal local buy-in to his project—a development he said could eventually bring thousands of jobs and millions of square feet of industrial developments, including intermodal and distribution facilities. He's tried to entice the city with promises that his project would bring the city more than $20 million in additional tax revenue.

Project opponent Sue Chwala, Bill Chwala's wife, told The Gazette she believes weighty issues are being sidestepped in an effort to speed agreements that would push the project forward.

Of particular concern, she and others who oppose the development say, is that Watson has said publicly that he “doesn't believe” in doing project feasibility studies.

She wonders what it would cost to overhaul and maintain rural roads in the area to accommodate truck traffic, and what the price tag would be for utility upgrades in a development area that would border on the water and sewer systems of Milton, Janesville and the Consolidated Koshkonong Sanitary District.

Chwala said she's concerned the potential impacts on infrastructure, land use and Smart Growth plans aren't being discussed, at least not in front of the public. 

“It seems like this all is being done in a big rush, and I don't understand it,” Chwala said. “I always thought the reason the townships and cities came up with their own Smart Growth plans was that they'd taken quite a lot of time and consideration to plan,” Chwala said. “You don't just completely change something—residential areas, farmland—in a week or two just because somebody wants you to,” she said.

She pointed out that the town of Fulton in a few months will galvanize a farmland use plan it's been working on for two years. She called the timing of Watson's sudden push to get re-zoning and annexation into a different municipality “interesting.” 

Gravel Pits?

Project opponent Mike Meyer, a resident who lives in a residential subdivision on North East Pine View Drive west of Watson's proposed annexation area, said he's suspicious Watson's sweeping plan involves an ulterior motive: gravel mining.

Watson admits his parcels and the areas around them are “loaded” with limestone. Meyer said he and others believe if an industrial development plan didn't immediately come together for Watson, the developer has a plan in his back pocket to mine gravel for the Interstate 90/39 widening project. The I/39-90 project starts construction phases near Milton in 2016.

“Whether he gets an Interstate ramp or an industrial park or not, all he's gotta do is truck it (gravel) from his land to the Interstate,” Meyer said. “He'd have the lowball (gravel-hauling) price and a large hunk of land near the Interstate. He'd make a fortune. I think it's a fail-safe for him,” Meyer said.

Watson has repeatedly told The Gazette he's not immediately interested in mining the area for gravel. In an interview earlier this month, he said gravel prices now aren't high enough for him to consider a plan like the one Meyer suggests.

Still, Watson hasn't shut the door on the idea of mining in the future, and in public meetings he wouldn't promise not to mine gravel. In an interview, he indicated it would be shortsighted to make such a vow.

“If gravel starts selling for a hundred dollars a ton, some future generation could make a lot of money mining it,” Watson said. “Future generations would say, 'I wonder what our great-grandfathers would say if we screwed up our chances to mine this.'”

Annexation and potential re-zoning of the land by the city of Milton could pave the way for an industrial-zoned area that, by law, could allow gravel pits.

Milton Mayor Brett Frazier told The Gazette last month he doesn't immediately consider gravel pits to mesh with the city's long-term economic development plans. Frazier said he'd rather see an industrial complex with jobs “under roofs” that are tightly concentrated around the County M/I-90/39 corridor.

“A lot of pits scattered around an area that spans the north side of the county, that doesn't seem to get you there,” Frazier said.

No public comment

Watson's tactics, which Frazier has called a “developer-driven” approach, seem counterintuitive to residents accustomed to detailed development plans passing through layers of local government.

That hasn't happened, yet, and talks have occurred at public meetings with little opportunity for residents to speak or ask questions.

At a Milton City Council meeting Jan. 21, when Watson was on the agenda to signal his intent for annexation, Frazier told 70 residents in attendance that public comment was not on the agenda. He said the city would hold public hearings and schedule public comment sessions when and if rezoning and annexation requests by Watson hit the city council's desk.

Town of Milton and Fulton officials have strictly limited comment, although they've said they'll allow public hearings when and if Watson submits hard plans or zoning change requests.

That bothers residents, particularly Bill Chwala, who opposes the plan and seeks to speak out in public.

“It's wrong that this Watson, a guy with such a boatload of money, can have such impact on these governments. And the whole time people who live here have to just stand at the back of the room at these meetings and can't say a thing,” Chwala said.

Despite a dearth of public comment, Milton and Fulton officials are holding meetings to strike accords on how the towns could handle zoning and land use issues. And both towns are striking legal agreements to accept money from Watson for technical review of zoning.

The city of Milton has been in preliminary review of how it could handle infrastructure development, roads agreements and even grandfathering of rural septic systems under a large annexation and industrial development such as Watson's proposal. The city is drafting an agreement for reimbursement of annexation costs, Frazier has said.

Meanwhile, it's still not clear what process Watson or the city could settle on for Watson to request annexation, or even when the request could happen. Although all annexations in Rock County are subject to review by the state Department of Administration, one type of annexation Watson is considering—direct petition by landowner—does not require noticing.

Opponent Jodi Trepasso, a resident along Kidder Road, said town officials have told her to write letters to the clerks detailing her opposition, questions and concerns. Yet she's afraid that by the time residents are allowed to speak in public, Watson's plans could be all but galvanized.

“My concern is we (the public) are going to get to talk too late. When the big snowball already is rolling down the hill, it's already too late to talk,” Trepasso said.

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