Milwaukee County supervisors lashed out Monday over a provision quietly added to the state budget bill last week aimed at settling the issue of whether the Couture high-rise can be built on a lakefront site.
The board never directed county staff to seek the change, which is contrary to a board resolution on how to resolve the question of whether the proposed Couture site is former lake bed protected from development, Supervisor Patricia Jursik said.
Developer Rick Barrett hopes to build the 44-story hotel and apartment tower on the site of the county Downtown Transit Center, at 909 E. Michigan St. Questions about whether the state constitution’s public trust doctrine would preclude the development have held up the project since it was proposed nearly a year ago.
“This is going to backfire,” said Jursik, a lawyer and chairwoman of the County Board’s Economic and Community Development Committee. If the provision remains in the budget and is signed into law, it could lead to legal wrangling around the state over all sorts of lakefront development, she said.
It also could lead to more, not less, litigation over the Couture, Jursik said.
Environmental groups have questioned whether the development site is former lake bed that should be protected from development. The County Board in January authorized filing a lawsuit seeking a court judgment on the lake bed issue.
Supervisor Michael Mayo Sr. scolded Teig Whaley-Smith, the county economic development director, after Whaley-Smith described his efforts to get the lake bed amendment included in the state budget bill.
“That is not your role,” Mayo said. “You don’t lobby — we are the policy-makers.”
Whaley-Smith said the lobbying strategy was developed by a county team that included County Executive Chris Abele and lawyers from a private firm hired by the county. State Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) agreed to lead the effort to have the amendment included in the budget, Whaley-Smith said.
“Hopefully (the budget amendment) is enough to put the issue to rest,” he said.
Mayo called the explanation “poppycock.”
Abele said he supported but did not initiate the move to seek state legislation on the lake bed issue.
Abele pointed to a passage in the board’s January resolution on hiring an outside firm for help as opening the door to seeking a legislative remedy. That passage authorized the Reinhart Boerner law firm to “take any actions as may be appropriate and necessary” to get a title insurance policy on the Couture site. That was broad enough to include lobbying for a state law change, Abele said.
“That’s their language,” he said of supervisors. “They voted for that and I’m glad they did.” Abele said the legislation should help clear up any legal questions.
The development issue highlighted another state law change last month that sought to clarify the respective roles of the board and the county executive. The law limited the board’s role in land sales and was aimed at curbing micromanaging by supervisors.
It also underscored that the board sets broad county policy.
Supervisor Gerry Broderick said the lobbying move on the lake bed issue was an example of Abele overstepping his bounds.
“I just think these people were so smug and so beyond themselves that they didn’t stop to look at the wide implications of what they were doing,” Jursik said.
The amendment essentially declared the site as fair game for development. It was part of a late-night package of changes added to the budget by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.