Along Decatur Sylvester Road west of Brodhead, a small yellow sign on the front lawn of a rural home declares opposition to industrial farms coming to Green County.
Looming on the horizon is the booming project site of Pinnacle Dairy, a farm that would milk 5,000 cows on nearly 130 acres and is the operation the little yellow sign purports to stop.
Pinnacle would be the latest foray into the south central Wisconsin market for the Tuls family. The family operates Rock Prairie Dairy east of Janesville in addition to a large farm in northwestern Wisconsin and others in Nebraska.
Construction crews have built a handful of partially complete farm facilities on the property. But Pinnacle still has not met a specific environmental condition it needs to secure a final permit.
Milk prices are low and the industry is flooded with an oversupply of milk. Some have questioned the logic of adding 5,000 cows to the market at this time, fearing the move could force smaller, already-struggling dairies out of business.
“We’re seeing family farms absolutely pushed off the land. That’s what drives rural communities,” said nearby farmer Jen Riemer. “If we drive out family farms in rural communities, we’re going to have nothing but shuttered-down towns in the countryside. It’s already happening.”
Riemer’s family leads a small beef, pork and chicken operation about a half-mile from the Pinnacle site. She helped start Green County Defending Our Farmland, the opposition group responsible for the yellow roadside signs.
She has many concerns with the project, chief among them the possibility of a manure spill tainting the area groundwater.
Riemer shares those concerns with Green County officials, who have not approved Pinnacle’s plans for manure storage and disposal. That’s what has caused the project to come to a temporary halt.
Green County Conservationist Todd Jenson said Pinnacle needs to meet three conditions related to water quality before the farm receives its livestock siting permit. Pinnacle has fulfilled two of the requirements but not the third, Jenson said.
The missing link is maintaining enough distance between the bottom of manure pits and the top level of groundwater, he said.
Todd Tuls, Pinnacle’s co-owner, insists his project is safe. He believes the site will meet the separation requirement within four to eight weeks, once trapped water is pumped out of the ground, he said.
Tuls said the water is isolated, packed between layers of soil with nowhere to drain. But Jenson is “questioning” that notion and believes it might be part of the groundwater.
If the water is trapped, Pinnacle is legally allowed to install a draining system to remove it. If it’s part of the groundwater, it would increase the separation distance requirement, Jenson said.
Tuls said the disagreement over the site’s hydrology is an effort to prevent Pinnacle from being completed. Environmental concerns from opponents are overblown, he said.
“The last thing I want is for us to pollute the water table or regional water or any type of pollution in the environment. There’s just differences of opinion,” Tuls said. “It’d be a very poor choice to invest the kind of money and do what we’re doing to have in two or three or five years to pollute the environment.
“I don’t quite understand the logic behind some of these people.”
Some of the concern about Pinnacle comes after a manure spill at Tuls-owned Emerald Sky Dairy in St. Croix County near Eau Claire. Farm operators did not report the spill until well after it occurred.
Tuls’ son T.J. previously told The Gazette the spill was not immediately reported because, buried underneath snow, nobody noticed when it happened.
Todd Tuls said the spill never left the property and that the family has upgraded Emerald Sky’s facilities to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Jenson said the Emerald Sky spill would not factor into his permit decision for Pinnacle.
Some opponents have brought up problems in Kewaunee County. There, manure runoff contaminated the groundwater supply and led to stricter regulations in response.
Jenson said it wasn’t fair to attach Kewaunee County concerns to Green County. Kewaunee has far more animals per farmland acre and more porous bedrock, he said.
Even if Pinnacle adheres to all environmental regulations, Riemer and other opponents fear the gigantic dairy could force out smaller farms.
The Riemers don’t milk cows, but they have friends with dairy farms who struggle to make ends meet, she said. Pinnacle, with its vast resources, can outlast others in a tight economic landscape.
Tressie Kamp, a staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said the dozens of nearby farms that have spent decades on their lands shouldn’t be forced to suddenly change their operations or take major financial risks.
But such moves would likely be necessary to keep up with Pinnacle.
“Because a business model of a smaller farm may be different than a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) … does not mean the business model is wrong or not sustainable long term,” Kamp said. “Why should it be the smaller farms who have to adjust the business model if a large farm comes into the community in order for the small farm to survive?”
Adding thousands of cows also seems like an unusual move to some opponents when the dairy market is awash with milk products.
Tuls dismissed that concern, saying the family wouldn’t build such a large business without already having agreements in place with regional dairy processors.
“We’re not going into markets that are overflowing in milk without talking to the people who are going to buy our milk,” he said. “That’s another silly thing. Why would we build a dairy in a spot we didn’t already have previous conversations with a co-op or plant for needing the product?
“It’s like building gas station where there’s no cars. That’s illogical.”
For Tuls, it made sense to enter the market now when prices are low. The diminished financial return of dairy farming would cause some farmers to leave the industry.
That would eventually lead to a drop in supply and increase demand for milk products, he said.
Mark Stephenson, the director of dairy policy analysis at UW-Madison, said while 5,000 additional cows seems like a massive increase, it’s a “drop in the bucket” compared to the overall dairy industry.
Stephenson didn’t think Pinnacle would directly force any existing farms out of business, but it would create unnecessary pressure at a time when some milk processors are “bursting at the seams,” he said.
Pinnacle has accumulated plenty of opponents throughout its lengthy push to secure final project approval.
It was involved in a since-dismissed lawsuit with the town of Sylvester over the town’s ordinances.
The South Central chapter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which represents Green County, has expressed the same environmental and industrial concerns as others. The group has lobbied for a slower approach to permitting, said current board member and former president Kriss Marion.
Midwest Environmental Advocates has not taken any legal action but has followed the process closely, Kamp said.
Riemer declined to comment whether Green County Defending Our Farmland would pursue a lawsuit. Even if the group is unable to stop this project, it could lead to future advocacy for stronger state-level regulations, she said.
Tuls cited more than 6,000 acres’ worth of local land lease agreements for manure spreading as evidence of having area support.
He said he would be happy to meet with opponents and hear their concerns, but Riemer said communication has been sporadic.
Pinnacle doesn’t want to put any surrounding farmers out of business. But Tuls, a leader of a multi-state dairy operation with tens of thousands of cows, challenged them to keep pace.
“A farmer can be competitive in any size or fashion if they’re really good at what they do,” he said. “A small farm should be able to easily compete with a bigger farm.”
To land the massive Foxconn factory, Gov. Scott Walker has committed the state to paying more than eight times as much per job as Wisconsin will provide under similar job creation deals struck last year, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis has found.
At more than $200,000 in state taxpayer money per job, the incentive package for the Taiwanese company is easily the state’s most expensive deal of 2017, totaling more than three times as much per job as the next most costly deal.
To get a fair comparison with Foxconn, the newspaper purposefully looked only at the more expensive 2017 deals in which the state offered tax credits for jobs created. That’s because it tends to cost more in tax credits to spur a company to create a new job rather than to retain an existing one.
Even then, the Foxconn Technology Group deal stands out.
Tim Bartik, an independent economist who studies economic development, said Wisconsin is paying many times more per job than he typically sees in other projects nationally and is even shelling out more than some states were willing to pay per job for the much-hyped Amazon headquarters.
“Around the country, you just generally don’t see offers this high,” said Bartik, who works for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “It’s very, very high.”
Wisconsin waives nearly all corporate and income taxes on manufacturing profits in the state. On top of that, the state will waive $150 million in sales taxes for Foxconn and pay the company up to $2.85 billion in tax credits—likely in cash—if it creates 13,000 jobs and invests at least $9 billion in a Racine County plant to make liquid crystal displays.
Foxconn also could benefit from lower electric rates, state money for roads and worker training and up to $764 million in local incentives from Racine County and the village of Mount Pleasant. But the Journal Sentinel analysis looked at only the state tax credits.
The newspaper examined Foxconn and the 58 other deals from 2017 in which Wisconsin promised companies tax credits if they created or retained jobs. The analysis found:
Walker and his administration have repeatedly said that the Foxconn deal makes sense because it will create a new cluster of technology companies and transform the state’s economy.
“The state recognized the once-in-a-generation opportunity presented by Foxconn is unlike that of any other project in the state’s history as Foxconn is bringing the future of electronics manufacturing to Wisconsin with the first LCD manufacturing facility outside of Asia,” said Mark Maley, spokesman for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
Bartik, the economist, said it might be possible to justify the Foxconn deal if the company ends up creating a technology cluster in Wisconsin that is akin to the one seen in Silicon Valley. But he cautioned that an impact like that is rare.
Bartik said that incentives nationally typically work out to be about $30,000 per job, or a little more than what Wisconsin offered other companies to create jobs last year.
For comparison, Bartik pointed to the reported offers made by states like Maryland and New Jersey for the second Amazon headquarters. In raw dollars, those offiers are no more than double Wisconsin’s offer to Foxconn even though has Amazon is offering up to four times as many jobs.
“As far as I know, per job no one has offered Amazon anything like what Wisconsin offered Foxconn,” Bartik said.
For his part, Maley noted that at least one other state—Michigan—made Foxconn an offer that seems larger than Wisconsin’s.
“As has been reported, other states offered larger incentives, but Governor Walker and his reforms gave Wisconsin an advantage that resulted in the company’s decision to make this historic investment in our state,” Maley said.
Michigan promised Foxconn what the state described as a $3.8 billion incentive package, but that state was mostly offering to waive taxes.
Wisconsin already waives much of those taxes for all manufacturers and never even put an explicit dollar value on those benefits, preferring instead to make a simpler offer that was heavy on cash.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, argues that price is too high, saying in a statement that the Foxconn deal commits the state to “decades of economic costs and liabilities.”
“This is the largest taxpayer handout out to a foreign corporation in U.S. history and will result in fewer state dollars going to local businesses, schools and roads, which are essential for long-term community development,” Shilling said.
local • 3A
Staffers can aid opioid effort
Leaders at the public health departments for Walworth and Rock counties are hoping new full-time staffers solely dedicated to the opioid crisis can align efforts to combat the drug’s impact. The two counties have or will soon utilize the services of full-time substance-use reduction coordinators from AmeriCorps’ Volunteers in Service to America program. Paige Mueller, a recent graduate of UW-La Crosse from Waupun, started working with Walworth County’s Department of Health and Human Services in late November.
sports • 1B-3B
Bledsoe leads Bucks to win
Eric Bledsoe scored 28 points, John Henson had season highs of 19 points and 18 rebounds Sunday as Milwaukee defeated the Brooklyn Nets, 109-94, and extended its winning streak to 10 games.
nation/world • 6B
Train crash kills at least two
An Amtrak passenger train slammed into a parked freight train in the early-morning darkness Sunday after a thrown switch sent it hurtling down a side track, authorities said. Two Amtrak crew members were killed, and more than 100 people were injured. It was the third deadly wreck involving Amtrak in less than two months. The Silver Star, en route from New York to Miami with nearly 150 people aboard, was going an estimated 59 mph when it struck the empty CSX train around 2:45 a.m., South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said.
Driving past the gated entrance and up a long, private lane, the opulence of Royal Oaks—a broad, chateau-like summer mansion along the south shore of Geneva Lake—comes into immediate and sharp focus.
A circular drive splits around a fountain centered in front of the light gray, nine-bedroom estate, offering one approach to the owner’s garage and another to the guests’ garage.
On the walk up to the arched, double front doors, windows topped with sharp gables allow a partial view of the home’s marble foyer and double staircase, where sunlight glints off a crystal chandelier that’s as big around as a child’s wading pool.
And that’s just the front of the home.
The 15,000-square-foot Royal Oaks at 4396 W. Basswood Drive, Lake Geneva is listed for sale for $8.99 million. That cost includes the seven-bedroom, 13 bath home; a guest house; a tennis court; an in-ground swimming pool; and more than three acres, including 214 feet of coveted lakefront viewable from most Royal Oaks rooms.
It’s a home you’ll likely never own, unless you’re a newly-minted Chicago hedge fund tycoon, or you just cashed in big on the recent bitcoin explosion.
But there are others with means. The shoreline homes of the 5,400-acre Geneva Lake for decades have been summertime and year-round havens for the some of the Midwest’s most elite.
Lakefront homes on the resort lake are starting to sell at a clip that’s surprising even to some longtime Lake Geneva luxury real estate brokers.
Williams Bay native David Curry, who operates Geneva Lake Front Realty, said that in the last two years lakefront real estate on Geneva Lake has started to boom—particularly in sales at the far upper end of the luxury home market.
Over the last two years, Curry said, the Geneva Lake lakefront market has sold 13 homes with sale prices in excess of $4 million. Two of those homes were sold for more than $7 million. That’s double the number of lakefront homes that sold at those points during the last peak housing market, which was around 2007, Curry said.
Overall, about 30 lakefront homes on Geneva Lake sold last year, and the average price for those homes was $2.8 million, said Margaret Canfield, a Lake Geneva-area broker for real estate firms Lake Geneva & Area real estate and properties.
This year, five more properties along the lakefront are being marketed at prices in excess of $4 million, Curry said. One lakefront estate, the 11,000-square-foot Hillcroft, one of several homes originally built by Chicago’s Wrigley family, is up for sale for $12.5 million, according to local listings.
According to real estate listing website Zillow, the former Wrigley property and the 19 acres it sits on—including a football field-sized swath of lake-frontage—would cost a buyer an estimated standard mortgage payment of $50,000 per month.
The former Wrigley estate, as of late last week, was under contract by a buyer, Curry said. It’s not one of his listings.
Canfield said it’s the first time she’s seen any of Geneva Lake’s lakefront homes hit the market at prices well above $10 million.
“It’s fascinating. There are (lakefront) houses on contract right now for $4 million, $5.9 million, another one for $6.5 million. Once those sell, those comparables, that’s going to keep driving up property (prices) on the lake,” she said.
Curry is the listing broker for the Chicago-area family selling Royal Oaks. He said he has three buyers interested in Royal Oaks right now. Last week, he said, he closed the sale of a spruce log mansion with massive stone fireplaces on Loramoor Drive on Geneva Lake’s south lakefront. Closing price: $5 million.
Curry said he believes a surging stock market in recent months and a new infusion of younger, up-and-coming buyers are a few forces driving the Geneva Lake luxury home market. Developers, he said, are once again building homes on some lots around the lake, and other buyers are snapping up lots along the lakefront to tear down existing homes with plans to build larger, even grander estates there.
Geneva Lake lakefront buyers once were commonly moguls on Chicago’s stock exchange, established elites with large families who sought sprawling vacation homes along Geneva Lake, Curry said. Now, Curry said, he’s equally likely to sell to younger, 30-something hedge fund executives seeking lakefront estates to cut loose and as an investment to park millions of dollars.
New buyers are coming in even as some longtime lakefront residents are attempting to climb the property ladder, selling their properties with the idea of buying bigger, even fancier homes along Geneva Lake.
Curry has sold real estate along Geneva Lake since 1996. When he started, he said, “entry level” lakefront homes, cottages or large ranch-style homes along the lake might have sold for $500,000. Those homes now are selling for $1 million, at least. And when they sell, Curry said, new owners often order major renovations or simply tear down the homes to build new ones.
Some new owners of larger homes sold along the lakeshore might put as much as $1 million into renovations, he said.
Within the last two years, Curry said he sold one empty lakefront lot—he called it “dirt to build on”—for $4 million, and a few lakefront homes built on speculation over the last year have sale prices upward of $4 million.
These trends, Curry expects, will continue as long as the stock market and the general economy stays elevated, or at least on an even keel. That would signal higher and more exclusive prices for homes on Geneva Lake’s historically sought-after lakefront.
Curry said vacation lakes anywhere else in the state might only have one, $8 million lakefront property apiece. On lakes like that, the goal for Realtors might be to find a single, big spender who’ll chase the cache of owning a lake’s biggest and best property, Curry said.
“We really don’t have to do that here. There is certainly more than one of those properties on this lake,” Curry said.
Although the local market for average-priced homes has heated to the point of bidding wars, with some buyers putting in offers within a few days or hours of viewings, Canfield said that’s not part of the game selling lakefront luxury in the Lake Geneva area.
Lakefront homebuyers Canfield has sold to can afford to be discerning, and they generally are, she said.
Some buyers of the past, she said, would cut a multi-million dollar check for a property. Now, she said, they’re more likely to buy the homes using traditional mortgage lending, because she said even jumbo mortgages for homes $750,000 or more still have interest rates comparable to more modest home loans.
“These buyers tend to be very, very discriminating. They know exactly what they’re looking for, and they’re going to stay within a certain price point. If they can’t find it, they’ll just wait,” Canfield said.
One of Canfield’s listings is a $1.09 million home at the gated Geneva National resort, which is on the north shore of Lake Como. The home is a 6,800-square-foot home that owners David and Bobbi Gutman built in 1996 as a year-round residence.
The home has four bedrooms and one bath and it’s built around a large, central living room with 20-foot-tall windows that offer a panoramic view of Lake Como, a 955-acre lake that’s about a 10-minute drive north of Lake Geneva.
The Gutmans, former Chicagoland residents who both had worked for Motorola, are in their 70s. For them, living in a nearly 7,000-square-foot home on a lakefront has run its course. They put the home on the market a year ago, hoping to sell it so they can downsize to a smaller home.
David Gutman said he’s not a boater, and he’s more interested in playing tennis than golfing, although his expansive lawn along the lakefront is adjacent to a par-5 hole that’s part of the Geneva National golf course.
Gutman said the decision to sell wasn’t tied to dynamics in the current housing market. He pointed out that unlike a mid-market home, there’s no such thing as public, open-house showings for properties like his.
The Gutmans themselves mulled the idea of building the house for months before they pulled the trigger, Gutman said.
“For us, selling it wasn’t really a market-driven thing,” Gutman said. “Nobody’s knocking on your door saying, ‘Show me a large-market house on Geneva National.’”
Bobbi Gutman has amassed a large art collection in the home. The Gutmans suggested some of the artwork, along with large curios such as a 15-foot succulent plant next to the enormous windows, might not make a move.
There’s another thing the Gutmans can’t take: their view of Lake Como.
“Sometimes when it’s a calm day, you look out there and you forget it’s a lake. It just looks like you’ve got 500 acres of yard out there,” he said.
At the Royal Oaks estate on Geneva Lake, Curry showed off some of the home’s internal trappings, which include a gilded, goose-shaped vanity faucet in one of the home’s many bathrooms, and hand-painted, Chinese-style wallpaper in some rooms. The wallpaper is so high-end that a single panel of the paper can cost $1,000 or more, Curry said.
Curry said there’s no way to tell whether such trappings will stay in place after the home is sold, but often, they don’t.
He looked out the window of a kitchen as large as some ranch-style houses, past Royal Oaks’ swimming pool and out over the frozen Geneva Lake, where a few ice fishers moved around like ants in the distance.
In a large living room that seemed to splay out a half a league to the left, a glossy, black grand piano sat silent near an enormous, flickering fireplace.
Around the corner, in the walk-in kitchen pantry, was an unopened bag of plain, old Tostitos corn chips. It was an odd dichotomy, Curry admitted, but he sees different sides of Geneva Lake’s owners in their homes, both the opulence and the humanity.
“They’re just people,” Curry said. “They just happen to have a heck of a lot more money than you or I will ever have.”