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Anybody in there? Janesville cataloging its vacant buildings

JANESVILLE

Peeling and chipped paint covers the dilapidated brick and concrete building at Rockport Road and South Washington Street.

Rusty grates cover broken windows on one side. Weathered wood conceals windows on the other. Tame graffiti defaces—perhaps improves—the exterior.

The building’s contents, visible through the broken glass, include a Mobil gas station sign and an old car. The vehicle was once robin’s egg blue, but the color has faded beneath a thick layer of dust.

The building has been vacant so long, city officials can only speculate what it used to be. It might have been a print shop, then storage space for the owner. Now, it likely awaits a pending raze-or-repair order, city Housing Services Director Kelly Bedessem said.

The building is one of 101 properties listed on the city’s newly compiled vacant building registry. The registry is designed to give Janesville officials more comprehensive knowledge of where such properties are located and provides them with a contact person for each building in case of emergency.

Registration requires the property owner, which sometimes can be an out-of-state bank, to pay a $200 fee and identify a responsible caretaker within 90 miles of Janesville. That’s helpful if there’s a crime, fire or other problem at the building, Bedessem said.

“If you had a fire and had to locate who was responsible, now we have a name,” she said. “Especially for these bank ones. Try getting a hold of Chase Bank in Paducah, Kentucky. It’s like a four-day process to get a human.”

Of the 101 buildings, 94 are residential, and seven are commercial. Seven of the 94 residential properties have been removed from the list because they are no longer considered vacant, Vacant Building Coordinator Corey Passer said.

Passer started inspecting buildings in May. His approach was reactive and proactive—visiting properties in foreclosure or ones residents complained about while also driving through the city looking for possible vacancies, he said.

He never went inside any building. If one appeared vacant, he sent a letter to the owner asking for more information to see if it was being used or if it met one of the city’s exemptions, he said.

Some of those exemptions include buildings being renovated or actively offered for sale, lease or rent. The city ordinance also exempted “snowbird” residences occupied for three or more months of the year.

Bedessem said the ordinance was based on similar policies in other municipalities. The exemptions were designed to be fair and flexible for property owners.

The exemptions resulted in a database considerably smaller than the city was expecting. Bedessem had estimated there might be 1,000 vacant properties in Janesville, but so far only 10 percent of her estimate has qualified for the list.

Notable commercial properties that did meet the city’s vacancy criteria include the Monterey Hotel downtown and the former Toys ‘R’ Us on Milton Avenue. Other seemingly empty properties didn’t qualify for various reasons:

Former Burger King at Centerway and Academy Street: The building is listed for sale and should be sold soon.

Former dry cleaner building on Centerway and Jackson Street: While the building might seem empty from the street, Aramark uses the back half of the property.

Former Accudyne building at Franklin and Ravine streets: The building has an occupancy permit for storage.

Former Town and Country restaurant at River and Dodge streets: The three-storefront complex is listed for sale.

Blackhawk Apartments at Milwaukee Street and Atwood Avenue: While part of this building is empty, there are still residents who live there. If at least 5 percent of a building is occupied with a tenant or business, it is not considered vacant.

Former Riverfront Center on Milwaukee Street: The property has active building permits for renovation.

Various vacant storefronts on West Milwaukee Street: Many of these have people living in the upper floors.

Passer said judging whether a property is listed for sale could lead to a lot of gray areas. If there was a “for sale” sign in the window, he called to see whether it was functional and to check if the asking price was reasonable.

Some owners were more active in marketing their buildings than others. The city might need to tighten this exemption in the ordinance, he said.

Still, Bedessem said, the ordinance’s goal was to record buildings clearly in disrepair. There could be other vacancies not on the registry, but the city might not know about them if the property is well-kept.

Residential properties, which make up the registry’s overwhelming majority, might have gone vacant if they were foreclosed or if a landlord walked away from rental property management.

The registry will hopefully convince those property owners to renovate those homes and get them back on the market, Bedessem said.

“Ideally, we would like responsible property owners to make the best use out of those properties, especially if it’s one where the landlord has just walked. List it, put it up for sale,” she said.

“We have a housing shortage in town. It’s a seller’s market. It would be in their best interest if they’re not going to use it to offload it.”


Local
New Minnesota mayor is Janesville product

RICHFIELD, MINN.

Every day after leaving St. Mary’s School in Janesville, Maria Regan Gonzalez would walk to her mother’s place of work, the YWCA, and help out by watching kids or cleaning.

“Growing up as a kid, I saw my mom and dad extremely involved in our community, and they taught us the values of community service,” Regan Gonzalez said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

She never considered politics for a career, but she said her parents’ example led her on a path to being elected mayor of Richfield, Minnesota, on Nov. 6.

Her afternoons at the Janesville YWCA—located near the courthouse back then but now on the city’s south side—came at a time when the city was seeing an influx of Spanish speakers, many of whom looked to the YWCA for help. Her mother, Belem Regan Gonzalez, was the organization’s Hispanic outreach coordinator.

“Of course I was inspired by my mom, who just works tirelessly in our community to help people get resources,” she said.

Maria graduated from Craig High School in 2004. She had been involved in the Human Relations Club with an inspiring teacher, Santo Carfora. She was one of three members of the Gay-Straight Alliance and wrote a column about social and environmental issues for the school newspaper, she recalled.

Volunteering “was just what I did. It was a part of my everyday life,” she said.

Her classmates voted her most likely to change the world, and while she makes no claims to being on that track, she is dedicated to serving her constituents, many of whom come to her regularly because she looks like them and speaks their native language, she said.

Regan Gonzalez graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in international relations and Spanish.

She eventually took a job with the city of Richfield, where she bought a house, helping connect residents with city services. She was struck by the opportunity to make change through local government, something she had known little about.

When an opening on the city council came up two years ago, she ran against an established candidate, getting 57 percent of the vote.

When nobody ran for mayor two years later, she was encouraged to run. She won without opposition.

Regan Gonzalez will be a mayor in a city of 36,000 that is governed similarly to Janesville: A city manager runs the operations, while four council members and a mayor set policy and direction.

The landlocked city has a school district in which 72 percent of students are people of color, she said.

Richfield has been named the Twin Cities’ best suburb. It’s a hot real estate market with no vacant land, so re-development is common. Homeowners sometimes find their neighborhoods transformed by multi-unit rental housing, she said.

Businesses are attracted to Richfield, she said, “but we don’t want to price our families out of their homes and our community, and unfortunately that’s dictated by the market. We can put protections in place, but at the end of the day, it’s the market.”

“I think the No. 1 challenge I’ll face as mayor and we’ll face as a community is change, and change is happening quickly,” she said. “And how are we going to respond to that change? (Will we be) proactive or push it away? Will we open doors to whoever wants to come in or accept change in way that fits our community?

As mayor, “You aren’t necessarily the most popular person. You have to make decisions for your community and think 30, 40 years out,” Regan Gonzalez said. “And you have to do that on top of a full-time job.”

Her full-time job is as a senior project manager for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. She helps the insurance provider in its efforts to address the root of health-care needs in communities.

She also is working on master’s degree in public health.

Maria sees “huge inequities in who holds leadership in our state,” so she sees the election of a woman and the state’s first Latina mayor as a significant step forward.

“One of things I love the most is going to schools and talking to kids and the way they glow, the way they get excited to know that somebody like me is the leader of our city,” she said.

She said she feels a connection to the wave of women voted into public office around the country this fall, but as the winner of a nonpartisan election, she is glad she doesn’t have to stick to any party’s ideology.

“I absolutely love that it’s nonpartisan. I think it’s a huge asset to our community. I don’t have to adhere to any political party,” she said “I get to focus on what’s best for my community.”


Fatal California fires spur search for solutions

BILLINGS, Montana

Creating fire buffers between housing and dry brush, burying spark-prone power lines and lighting more controlled burns to keep vegetation in check could give people a better chance of surviving wildfires, according to experts searching for ways to reduce the growing death tolls from increasingly severe blazes in California and across the West.

Western wildfires have grown ever more lethal, a grim reality that has been driven by more and more housing developments sprawling into the most fire-prone grasslands and brushy canyons, experts say. Many of the ranchers and farmers who once managed those landscapes are gone, leaving neglected terrain that has grown thick with vegetation that can explode into flames when sparked.

That has left communities ripe for tragedy as whipping winds and recurring drought characteristic of climate change stoke wildfires like the ones still raging in Northern and Southern California that have killed at least 59 people in recent days.

Hundreds of thousands of people were told to leave their homes ahead of the blazes to get out of harm’s way. Yet some experts say there has been an over-reliance on evacuation and too little attention paid to making communities safe and not enough money for controlled burns and other preventive measures.

Search crews found many victims inside their vehicles, or just next to them, overcome by flames, heat and smoke as they tried to flee. Survivors of the blaze that nearly obliterated the Northern California town of Paradise and nearby communities spoke of having just minutes to escape alive and narrow roads made impassible by flames and traffic jams.

“There are ... so many ways that can go wrong, in the warning, the modes of getting the message out, the confusion ... the traffic jams,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension program.

As deadly urban wildfires become more common, officials should also consider establishing “local retreat zones, local safety zones” in communities where residents can ride out the deadly firestorms if escape seems impossible, Moritz said.

That could be a community center built or retrofitted to better withstand wildfires, which can exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving little trace of ordinary homes.

Such fire protection measures in buildings can include sprinklers, fire- and heat-resistant walls and roofs, and barriers that keep sparks out of chimneys and other openings, according to the International Code Council, a nonprofit that helps develop building codes used widely in the United States.

Creating more buffers—whether parks, golf courses or irrigated agriculture, like the vineyards that helped keep 2017 wildfires in California’s wine country from spreading into even more towns—around new and old housing developments would help stave off wildfires threatening to overrun cities and towns.

So would burying electric power lines, which can spark and fail in the high winds that drive many of California’s fiercest fires, said Jon Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in California. Sparks from electrical utility equipment are suspects in the Northern California wildfire that consumed Paradise, destroying some 8,800 homes, and other deadly blazes in the state.

A proven historic method to prevent wildfires from getting out of control is the use of controlled burns. By intentionally lighting fires, property owners or land managers can remove dead and low-lying trees and brush—material that otherwise accumulates and can accelerate the growth of fires.

In the mid-20th century, California ranchers burned hundreds of thousands of acres annually to manage their lands, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council.

That was phased out in the 1980s after California’s fire management agency stepped in to take over the burns. By the last decade the amount of acreage being treated had dropped to less than 10,000 acres annually, Quinn-Davidson said.

Former agriculture land that rings many towns in the state became overgrown, even as housing developments pushed deeper into those rural areas. That was the situation in the northern California town of Redding leading up to a fire that began in July and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. It was blamed for the deaths of eight people.

“You get these growing cities pushing out, housing developments going right up into brush and wooded areas. One ignition on a bad day and all that is threatened,” Quinn-Davidson said. “These fires are tragic, and they’re telling us this is urgent. We can’t sit on our hands.”

The latest California fires have fueled debate over the reasons for the ever-more deadly wildfires, with President Donald Trump claiming in a tweet Saturday that “gross mismanagement of the forests” was the sole reason the state’s fires had become so “massive, deadly and costly.” He also threatened to withhold federal payments to the state.

However, most of California’s deadly fires of recent years have been in grasslands and brushy chaparral, Keeley said.

“Most of the fires we’ve been seeing in the last couple years that are the most destructive are not in the forest. Thinning isn’t going to change anything,” he said.

Trump’s assertion also ignored the huge federal land holdings in the state and brought a quick backlash, with the president of the California firefighters union describing it as a shameful attack on thousands of firefighters on the front lines.

To ease tensions, the White House sent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to tour fire-damaged areas and offer assistance to California Gov. Jerry Brown.

In an interview prior to the two-day visit, which began Wednesday, Zinke struck a conciliatory tone and said federal officials share blame for not managing public forest and rangelands aggressively enough.

“We need to work in unison to make sure we thin the forest, especially fire breaks, and make sure we have prescribed burns,” Zinke told The Associated Press. “There’s been a lack of management on Interior lands, on U.S. Forest Service lands and certainly with state lands.”

But it’s California, not the Trump administration, that is putting more money behind such efforts.

In response to the deadly blazes of recent years, California lawmakers in September approved a measure that would provide $1 billion over five years for fire protection, including more controlled burns and projects to thin forests and brush land.

By contrast, spending on the federal government’s hazardous fuels reduction programs has been flat in recent years. It has hovered just under $600 million, even as spending on fighting fires increased dramatically, to more than $2 billion last year.

For 2019, the Forest Service has proposed a modest $3 million bump for its wildfire fuels program. Zinke has proposed a $29 million cut for Interior’s program.


Obituaries and death notices for Nov. 15, 2018

Christopher D. Gullickson

Angela L. Hines

Betty J. Saunders

Richard Neil Wallace

Lawrence H. Whiting III


Fewer deer hunters heading into the Wisconsin woods saps a revenue stream for conservation work

This time of the year, the sight of blaze orange and whitetails draped on cars might seem commonplace in many corners of the state.

But with the annual gun deer hunting season just days away, declining participation in a Wisconsin cultural tradition is threatening funding for an array of state conservation programs, a nonpartisan research group says.

A drop in deer hunters, heavily influenced by an aging hunting population, means less money for managing a burgeoning deer population and taking on challenging wildlife issues such as chronic wasting disease, a fatal deer disorder.

Deer hunting licenses are also used as a key funding source for the Department of Natural Resources to manage state properties for hunters and non-hunters alike and to protect endangered and threatened resources.

Total deer hunting license sales dropped by 5.8 percent between 1999 and 2017, according to a new report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan group with offices in Milwaukee and Madison.

That drop of 50,414 licenses to 824,475 is roughly equivalent to the entire population of La Crosse staying out of the woods.

And it means less money from license revenue to pay for conservation programs.

In the same 1999 to 2017 period, the DNR paid for 21 percent fewer positions out of the state’s fish and wildlife fund. That’s a decline of 144 positions to 550, the research group found.

“This is a serious long-term issue for conservation and we really need to pay attention to it,” said Tom Hauge, a retired DNR manager who was director of wildlife management for 25 years.

‘Just plugging holes’

Hauge and Larry Bonde, chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, which advises the DNR, say that an increase in federal funds from a tax on guns and other sporting equipment has helped lessen the impact in recent years, especially during the Obama administration when there was a spike in gun sales.

“But that’s just plugging holes,” Bonde said.

The fees for most sporting licenses have not been raised since at least 2005.

Sociologists have predicted a declining trend in hunting for years as the population has aged and Americans have gravitated to more sedentary lifestyles—though the sale of fishing licenses in Wisconsin increased by 3.6 percent last year, the Policy Forum found.

Last year, the number of deer killed during the gun deer season fell to the second-lowest level in 35 years. The DNR sold the lowest number of licenses in 41 years.

To address a trend of fewer hunters—and dollars—Wisconsin policymakers face options ranging from spending cuts, indexing fees to inflation, recruiting a new generation of hunters or reaching out to others such as hikers and birdwatchers to help fund wildlife programs, according to the Policy Forum.

Sporting organizations have pitched higher fees for hunting and fishing licenses for years—an idea that has gone nowhere.

In September, a group of 15 organizations again proposed to Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature higher license fees, including increases in waterfowl, inland trout, and Great Lakes trout and salmon stamps.

They also recommended a $3 increase in archery and gun deer licenses from $24 to $27.

Revenue from deer hunting licenses would raise an estimated $1.7 million and would be earmarked for specific uses such forest habitat improvement, deer research and disposing of carcasses.

Although Walker has resisted licenses fee increases, Bonde of the Conservation Congress said the governor seemed more receptive last spring when he met with the organization.

“He’s been absolutely no tax, no fee increase,” Bonde said. “But I think he was seeing the handwriting on the wall and hearing the rumbling from the sportsmen.”

During the governor’s race, Bonde said sporting groups met with the campaigns of Walker and Gov.-elect Tony Evers. Bonde said he believes Evers’ first state budget will include increases in some license fees.

“I feel they are going to take it very seriously,” Bonde said.

Evers’ office did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.