John Rondy is a Bay View-based freelance writer.
ST. FRANCIS -- In a year-end transaction that has gone largely unnoticed, a large parcel of land owned by We Energies was sold to the City of St. Francis for a reported $825,000. The land sale went through on Dec. 15, said former City Administrator Ralph Voltner, who retired at the end of December.
The reported price for the 87 acres of land that is contiguous to the Cousins Center on the south and west is considerably below the original $2.15 million that the utility was asking in a proposed sale to Cardinal Stritch University. While Voltner did not disclose the actual dollar amount of the sale, the amount was reportedly $825,000, according to a published report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last March. A source familiar with the transaction confirmed the sale price. City officials said the property has been appraised at $3,682,000.
The transaction involves three separate parcels, including 73 acres south of the Cousins Center with 19 developable acres. Another 14 acres is a utility transmission wire corridor. The combined acreage is bounded roughly by the Cousins Center property on the North at South Lake Drive. Howard Avenue to the south, Packard Avenue to the southeast and Kinnickinnic Avenue on the west.
As part of the purchase, some of the acquired property adjacent to Seminary Woods will be established as green space to serve as a buffer for the environmentally sensitive tract of old growth woods, Voltner said.
“It’s a lousy commercial real estate market, and there was a corporate feeling [from We Energies] that the most obvious buyer would be the city,” Voltner said. “I think we felt the same way – this would enable us to call our own shots.”
If properly developed, Voltner said a portion of the former We Energies land could be combined in catalytic fashion with the envisioned redevelopment of the 44-acre Cousins Center, which is owned by the Milwaukee Archdiocese and up for sale. A proposed sale of the Cousins Center to Cardinal Stritch University to create a second campus fell through in 2009.
“I think it makes the Cousins Center a more usable parcel,” Voltner said of the land purchase. “It enhances both sites. In many instances, a buyer of the Cousins Center may want some of the land that is adjacent to. We didn’t buy it to lose money.”
But, despite what appears to be a bargain price for the land, it comes with environmental risk. A 50-acre portion of the site once served as a dumping ground by the utility for fly ash, which is a byproduct of burning coal. Fly ash contains a significant amount of environmental toxins, including arsenic, barium, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, chromium VI, cobalt, copper, fluorine, lead, manganese, nickel, selenium, strontium, thallium, vanadium and zinc.
At one time, railroad cars dumped fly ash from the nearby Lakeside power plant from 1921 to 1969 (the plant was decommissioned in 1983).
The fly ash on the former We Energies land was capped about 20 years ago with a two-foot layer of clay and topsoil, and is subject to monitoring by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that coal fly ash did not need to be regulated as a hazardous waste.
Residents of the Trestle Creek subdivision, which abuts a portion of the acquired land, reportedly met recently with St. Francis city officials to learn about the city’s plans for future development of the property.
“I don’t want this to be an environmental disaster down the road for the people that live there,” said a St. Francis resident, who asked to remain anonymous.
We Energies will bear any future environmental liability costs as long as the cap is not disturbed, said We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey.
“When Stritch was looking at it, it was perfectly ok to put a soccer field on it and not disturb the cap,” Voltner said. “There are some areas that can be readily developed, and they don’t have fly ash. I think we can develop some of it relatively easy…capture enough to just about make up what we bought it for without touching the cap or some of the other areas.”
Linda Fellenz, an environmental consultant who has experience working with former We Energies sites, is currently gathering information and assessing the acquired land. Fellenz is also the head of the St. Francis Community Development Authority (CDA).
“Our goal is to have some redevelopment of that land, absolutely,” Fellenz said.