Watson asks city of Janesville to consider annexation

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Neil Johnson
Monday, February 24, 2014

JANESVILLE—Landowner Bill Watson is pitching his plan to develop a large industrial park west of Milton to a new audience: the city of Janesville.

Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag confirmed Monday that Watson met with city staff Thursday to discuss the idea of annexing 1,500 acres he owns along County M and Interstate 90/39 into the city of Janesville.

“He (Watson) had suggested or offered that perhaps a way to work the land development in the vicinity of County M and Interstate 90 could be done through annexation with the city of Janesville,” Freitag said.

Freitag said Watson called him Wednesday to request the meeting. He said the city attorney and development officials were in talks with Watson's attorneys again Monday to learn if the idea would be viable or even legal under state annexation laws.

“I thought it was a very original idea and something I'd never thought about before,” Freitag said. “As intriguing as the idea is, we have to figure out if it is even possible.”

It's not clear if Watson is seeking to annex into Janesville all or a portion of the land he's earmarked for development.

Watson in the last three months has been shopping his plan to the city of Milton and the towns of Fulton and Milton and last month said he planned to file an annexation petition with the city of Milton. He seeks to develop 1,500 acres he owns in the towns of Fulton and Milton, and he's also proposing an interchange he'd pay for at County M and I/90-39, but that plan is pending a justification report and state and federal approval.

He has not filed detailed project plans or re-zoning requests with the towns or an annexation petition the city of Milton, officials say.

Watson has said he'd like to partner with a municipality that could annex and re-zone his land quickly—even though he hasn't gotten approval for an interchange, which would be crucial for his project to work.

Milton city officials have said they are supportive of an interchange at County M, but Mayor Brett Frazier and some council members have said they're wary of Watson's lack of detailed project plans.

And those officials have said they also can't shake the specter of Watson developing gravel pits as part of his proposal—a possibility Watson has sought to downplay but has not ruled out.

Watson, the city of Milton and the city of Janesville were in talks in January about linking city of Janesville wastewater services to Watson's proposed development. Monday's acknowledgement by the city of Janesville signals the first time Watson has approached any municipality other than the city of Milton over the potential of annexation.

Watson said he began to talk with the city of Janesville about annexation after Milton officials began to balk over his options to mine gravel at the development site.

Monday night, Watson said he needs zoning that could include gravel mining to line up investors for the project.

“I don’t ever have to sell a bucket of gravel in order to make this work,” Watson said. “But the asset we have (for investors) is sand and gravel in the ground.”

“Where my thoughts are, if Milton can’t give us zoning for aggregate that’s in the ground, we can’t do the project. That shuts the door.”

Freitag said Watson last week did not give Janesville officials detailed reasons why he wanted to discuss annexation, and he has not filed an annexation petition with the city of Janesville.

Watson’s been trying to get a landowner, Kerry Hull, to sign onto a direct annexation petition as part of a proposal to annex into the city of Milton. Hull owns a piece of land that would connect the development area with the south end of Milton. That would ease one annexation requirement under direct petition annexation laws.

Annexation cannot create islands. Land annexed by a city must be connected to the city.

As of last week, Hull, who is a Fulton Town Board member, hadn’t agreed to sign onto the deal, Watson told The Gazette’s editorial board.

It’s not clear what type of annexation Watson could have in mind in Janesville, or whether he’s talking with landowners who could link his proposed development with the city.

Janesville City Planning Services Manager Duane Cherek said the city is aware of at least one landowner between Watson’s land and Janesville city limits.

“It’s come up in the sense that we know there’s an intervening property owner consisting of multiple parcels. At this point I don’t believe they have consented. I don’t know the actual status,” Cherek said.

In addition to the city’s need to analyze the cost and feasibility of utility extensions, road maintenance and jurisdiction issues for a potential annexation, Freitag said one of the main questions is whether it would be legal for the city to extend its boundaries north through at least two towns.
He said annexation would require the city to cleave through the towns of Harmony and Milton, and possibly the town of Fulton.

“There are concerns over contiguous land space,” Freitag said. “The biggest question I have is regarding essentially separating townships. You can’t take a chunk of land on the left, annex something into the center, and cut it off from the other part of the county on the right.”

Freitag said the concept of annexing a finger of land to connect the city to a development of the scope Watson is proposing is “out of the box” for the city.
“If it (annexation) is in the realm of possible, we’d have to take this to the city council and the community to get feedback. That’s the process. First we have to figure out if it’s even possible,” Freitag said.

Cherek said city staff would likely spend the next week analyzing the idea before giving any formal recommendation to Freitag..

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