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Neighbors raise environmental concerns in light of River Club ruling

Wendy Porterfield is seen in the back yard of her home on the shore the Milwaukee River  Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, in Mequon, Wis.

Wendy Porterfield is seen in the back yard of her home on the shore the Milwaukee River Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, in Mequon, Wis. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Aug. 14, 2013

Mequon — Wendy Porterfield, a 20-year resident of Oak Shore Lane along the Milwaukee River, lives her life according to a simple credo.

"Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you," she recites, looking out over the river from the pontoon boat moored to the pier in her back yard.

She practices what she preaches, having spent a great deal of time over the years tending the river among those she calls "a whole community of 'river people,' and we're very protective of it."

Porterfield is so protective that she's prepared to throw herself in front of a bulldozer if River Club of Mequon owner Tom Weickardt resurrects his plan to develop a 42-acre lot just upstream from her home. She and other Oak Shore Lane homeowners on the Milwaukee River, alongside other Ville Du Parc area residents, fear Weickardt may do just that after an Ozaukee County Circuit Court judge recently decided that a much-debated easement doesn't give Ville Du Parc area homeowners the right to enter and use the lot.

"The easement was a (development) roadblock to me," says Porterfield, "and now Weickardt's inching closer and closer toward what I fear."

Flooding and filtration concerns

Cheryl Nenn of non-profit environmental advocacy group Milwaukee Riverkeeper says development of the site would compromise the water filtration the 42-acre lot provides through its dense vegetation and soils, and would decrease water quality downstream.

"It's providing real ecological function that would be lost," said Nenn.

Worse yet, Porterfield and Nenn say that replacing the permeable, sandy soil in the lot with impermeable fill, raising the elevation of the lot, and installing home foundations, could reduce the ability of the area to soak up rainwater and cause flooding in nearby homes.

A fill permit filed by Weickardt in 2012, which wasn't approved by the city, requested 61,000 cubic yards of fill and elevation increases between eight and 11 feet. The flooding is a fear Porterfield feels keenly, since the river has risen precariously close to the first floor of her basementless home during rainstorms in recent years.

Owning a home on the river "is a risk you take, but I know this river and I know what to expect," said Porterfield. "If (Weickardt) plans to raise that property up, that's going to change everything downriver."

Weickardt has been tight-lipped on the subject.

Advocates for conservation

The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and City of Mequon have all attempted to acquire the lot for the purposes of conservation.

The controversial open space easements governing access to the lot — the subject of the recent lawsuit between Weickardt, the city, and nine Ville Du Parc families — have kept both MMSD and the Land Trust from gaining the grant funding necessary to buy the property. According to Mayor Dan Abendroth, the city tried to get Weickardt to donate the land for perpetual conservation, but discussions eventually fizzled out.

Though Judge Tom Wolfgram's recent ruling says the city can amend the easements in such a way to encourage development, Porterfield and Nenn maintain the best course is to find a way to keep the land undeveloped or get it in the hands of conservationists like the Land Trust or MMSD.

"I think (the ruling) is a really poor precedent, to delegitimize the open space easements," said Nenn. "There's the question of can versus should. Legally, can you change them? Yeah. But should you? No."

The fate of the 42-acre lot likely won't be decided until after more courtroom hearings and meetings in the Common Council chambers. In the meantime, says Porterfield, she'll just have to cross her fingers and hope things don't change upstream.

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