Our Views: Don’t miss chance to speak Thursday on industrial park near Milton

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Milton City Council deserves credit for planning a listening session for Thursday night so residents can raise questions and comment on a proposed industrial park along Interstate 90/39 at County M.

Critics, including residents who could become neighbors of the 1,500-acre complex, might argue that their chance to speak is arriving late. After all, the city has been talking with developer Bill Watson for months.

But Watson’s land isn’t even in the city of Milton. It’s split between the towns of Milton and Fulton. Not only that, but the city hasn’t received a formal annexation request. Neither the plan commission nor any city committee has seen detailed plans.

That doesn’t mean residents from the city and elsewhere don’t deserve a chance to speak about a complex so massive that it would change the countryside and their way of life.

What residents shouldn’t expect Thursday night, however, are solid answers from city officials. Residents will pose plenty of questions, but few answers will be available until Watson and development partner Jeff Helgesen offer more details.

By having residents raise questions now, officials will be better prepared to proceed with their eyes wide open and seek answers before saying yea or nay to specifics.

Milton Mayor Brett Frazier expects the council to spend about three hours listening tonight. Public comments are the lone agenda item. The council will take no action, and Frazier doesn’t expect Watson to attend.

Frazier discussed Watson’s plans with The Gazette’s editorial board Tuesday. Some residents fear that Watson might mine gravel rather than erect factories or that he will start a slaughterhouse or large dairy. Frazier said talks with the developers have brought no hints of such ideas. Also, while Watson thinks annexation might expedite plan approval, Frazier says annexation must involve land that abuts the city. He notes that Watson’s property does not, and all affected landowners must support any annexation petition.

The proposal also hinges on state approval of an I-90/39 interchange at County M. While Interstate expansion won’t begin until next year, Frazier said the state’s designs are supposed to be finished by the end of March. This is the third time in recent years that officials have discussed an interchange, and if it ever is to be built, now is the time to get approval. Watson wants it so badly he says he’d pay construction costs.

Frazier acknowledges that some residents distrust the city because of closed sessions Milton held before approving the United Ethanol plant almost a decade ago. But Frazier wasn’t in office then, and City Hall has undergone almost a total turnover. He says the council must meet in closed session when bargaining but will be conservative about doing so because officials want to keep the public fully aware of developments. Residents should hold them to that.

An interchange done right, Frazier wisely notes, could help Milton and businesses that became isolated with last year’s opening of the Highway 26 bypass. He also pointed out that business developments in Rock County in the past year haven’t been enough to improve the jobless rate. A project this large could do that not just in Milton or Rock County but all of south-central Wisconsin.

That, Frazier rightly suggests, makes this proposal worth discussing. Residents for or against it shouldn’t miss Thursday's chance to speak out.

Last updated: 7:47 am Thursday, February 13, 2014

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