After three months plus three final, brutal hours of debate, the Wauwatosa Community Development Committee voted 7-1 Tuesday to recommend an all-underground route down Walnut Road for a new power line to reach the County Grounds.
That recommendation also carries a rider opposing any overhead lines along Underwood Creek Parkway, the other major proposal on the table.
The decision, though – and that any decision was made at all – came down to the last hour.
In one more presentation, City Attorney Alan Kesner reviewed the alternatives and repeated the need for a consensus on one preferred route – if the city were to show a preference at all.
He also made it clear that the clock was ticking – the date for the city's testimony in front of the Public Service Commission is Oct. 15. Testimony by American Transmission Co. (ATC), which will build the line, begins Thursday.
Kesner told the committee that he needed all the time he could get to prepare, and then restated his recommendation for the underground route down Walnut Road, underneath the Public Works Yard, down the Mayfair Road corridor and east along Watertown Plank Road to the We Energies power plant.
That, he said, was not just his preference. It was the consensus of engineers the city has hired to investigate the best route, and also of Milwaukee County, which wants to protect a new economic development tract being opened up by the Zoo Interchange project.
Neighborhoods at odds over choice
Then came one more round of public comment, as before pitting approximately equal numbers from two neighborhoods against one another, neither the Walnut Road-Fisher Woods neighbors nor the Underwood Creek neighbors wanting to give ground.
The Underwood neighbors carefully voiced their support of the recommended Walnut Road route, saying it was unfortunate for a few but best for the city as a whole.
Walnut Road neighbors were less restrained, particularly in their objection to a set of additional "drop structures," shorter towers that would bring the new power line down from an existing tower and would stand on the verge of their street.
"It's science fiction," said Patrick Albert. "It's like 'War of the Worlds,' these things stepping out onto Walnut Road."
Uneasy aldermen want to wait longer, know more
When it came to back to the committee, members were still inclined to hold off.
There were still too many uncertainties. Too many costs were still unknown. Kesner could not say exactly what one critical section of the underground route would cost, because his engineers are not yet able to tell him.
Protests came from Alds. Cheryl Berdan, who represents the district, and Kathleen Causier, that they were nowhere near ready to rule on the matter.
Ald. Greg Walz-Chojnacki said in measured tones that he fully believed the time had come to take action.
"We're trying to avoid Wauwatosa taking on the look of an industrial park," he said. "The all-underground route is the least harm."
But in the face of clear uneasiness among his colleagues, Walz-Chojnacki said, he wasn't yet ready to propose it, deferring to further debate.
The unease only deepened, and a motion from Ald. Jason Wilke would have held the matter over for another two weeks, to Sept. 25, and another discussion, with any action the committee might take then going to the full Common Council on Oct. 2.
Wilke asked attorney Kesner, though, what that would mean to his efforts to argue the city's case.
Attorney Kesner says what's really on his mind
Kesner, who throughout has maintained his typical calm and unruffled demeanor, even in the face of barbs of criticism from citizens, came as close as he's ever been to publicly losing his temper.
"It'll make my life hell between Oct. 3 and Oct. 15," he said sharply.
He instantly resumed his ususal poise and said, "But that's OK, that's my job."
With that, Ald. Bobby Pantuso took a stand, saying that he would not support the motion to hold the item over and making it clear that he wanted a final decision before the meeting adjourned.
"No matter what we do, we're going into the unknown," Pantuso said. "In two weeks, we're not going to know more than we do now."
Pantuso once again raised the specter of Hales Corners – where huge overhead power lines march through a commercial corridor – and said that even his young children were appalled by the idea of Wauwatosa looking like that.
However, he said, if Wauwatosa could not make up its mind now what route it wanted to champion, "the PSC will do whatever the PSC wants to do."
Another attorney weighs in, in courtroom fashion
Pantuso's argument may have moved some, but it's doubtful whether enough were swayed.
That was left to Ald. Dennis McBride, who purposely waited to speak last in case of need, and he was ready.
McBride, an attorney, delivered a well-prepared, withering, stem-winder of a speech that left little doubt where things would go.
"No matter what decision we make, half the people in this room are going to go away very unhappy. The one thing that we can't have happen is for everyone to lose."
"We're going to court, here," McBride said.
McBride described cases he has argued when he spent whole weeks working until 11 p.m. nightly, preparing reams and reams of documents for court review.
"Now we're going to consider making our city attorney and his team stay up until 2 a.m. trying to prepare a room full of documents and to prepare their case?"
Wauwatosa, to have any hope of winning over the PSC to any other but the least-cost alternative – overhead lines on the parkway – needs every ally it can get and must be firmly aligned with them, McBride said.
"Make no mistake – Milwaukee County is the player here, not Wauwatosa. Milwaukee County owns the County Grounds, it owns the parkways, it owns land that is needed for economic development.
"There cannot be overhead lines on those properties."
McBride reminded the committee that Gale Klappa, CEO of We Energies, had written a joint letter to the PSC with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in support of an all-underground route for a second power line from the south – and that We Energies still owns a 26 percent stake in ATC.
"I have had discussions with Gale Klappa," McBride said, "and he has made it very clear. He said, 'You must have consensus if you want my support.'"
Ald. Wilke withdrew his motion to hold the matter, and McBride said simply, "I move to support the city attorney's recommendation."
Walz-Chojnacki quickly seconded.
Only Ald. Berdan, in the uneviable position of representing both sets of neighbors – both alternative routes cross her 7th District – voted nay.