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Delayed Schoonmaker Creek Vote Could Cost a Year in Flood Relief

Highlands neighbors hold up application to have MMSD take charge of stream, even though the city is under no obligation to follow through after vetting of the proposal.

The city engineer is recommending that Wauwatosa look into turning over jurisdiction of one of its waterways to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and he says that could save the city millions of dollars in sewer repairs.

But a small group of irate citizens from one of Wauwatosa's more notable neighborhoods, the Washington Highlands, prompted aldermen to delay a vote on applying for the change, and that delay could put off for a full year any progress on the switchover and any work on the sewers.

It could also expose thousands of households thoughout East Tosa to another year of possible flooding.

The reason for the neighbors' anger? They weren't told the city was considering such a move nor consulted on it beforehand. They say they were "blind-sided" by the proposal, and even when told that merely putting in the application obligates the city to nothing, they demanded and got a Common Council committee to put off a vote for another month.

That slowdown could make an application too late to meet MMSD's next annual budget cycle, leading to a wait of another year to have it considered, and another year in which the rains may come again.

When a river runs through it

For most of its length, Schoonmaker Creek is a buried and forgotten stream. It surfaces only briefly as it runs through the Washington Highlands in its Depression-era Lannon stone channel, under arched bridges and past Wauwatosa's finest houses.

But Schoonmaker Creek is still there, too, under hundreds and hundreds of tightly packed bungalows and Colonials northwest of the Highlands all the way to and past the northern border of East Tosa.

Running in pipes under the most dense residential area in the city, Schoonmaker Creek is normally an unnoticed trickle. But when the big rains come, runoff from thousands of roofs, from driveways and streets and lawns, seeks the lowest point and pours into storm sewer grates faster than it can be carried off.

The lowest point, and the vectoring of those inadequate pipes, is the historic course of Schoonmaker Creek. Then it rises like a ghost out of the ground and swamps streets by the blocks and homes by the hundreds.

Sharing ownership of the problem

With that in mind, and with the city looking at probably $50 million in storm sewer improvements and another $50 million in sanitary fixes in East Tosa, City Engineer Bill Wehrley is proposing that Wauwatosa give up jurisdiction of the creek.

MMSD manages and regulates stormwater issues on all the larger, open watercourses in the Milwaukee area. In Wauwatosa, that includes the Menomonee River and Honey, Underwood and Grantosa creeks.

But under some little-known provisions of MMSD's charter and rules, municipalities can request that the district also take jurisdiction of smaller streams, including, under certain circumstances, those that are for the most part now underground.

If a combination of certain conditions are met – among them that it be a perennially running stream, that it not only causes local flooding but contributes to regional flooding, and that it crosses municipal boundaries – MMSD is obliged to take control.

In that case, Wehrley explained, MMSD would take on certain of the design and construction work associated with the stream and would pay for its part in managing flooding on it.

Schoonmaker appears to qualify on all counts, and Wehrley said that in preliminary discussions, MMSD had already agreed to the proposal. MMSD, Wauwatosa and the City of Milwaukee, where the headwaters of Schoonmaker rise, would form a joint full-watershed pact and contribute to planning and implementation of a flood management plan.

Time of the essence... but only to apply

Wehrley also explained that an application to MMSD for the jurisdictional change would have to be made in February if MMSD were to have time to fulfill mandatory consideration and public hearing periods before its June budget finalization.

Wehrley also said that the application process was just that – an application, with no obligation to enter into an agreement if the city decided it was not in its best interest.

Wehrley clearly believes it is in Wauwatosa's best interest, potentially "saving the city millions of dollars." It also would bring in MMSD's specialized large-scale hydraulic engineering expertise. Under the timetable he discussed with MMSD officials, it would also put the long-needed East Tosa Sewer Project, currently unplanned and unfunded, onto a schedule that would begin construction in 2016.

Highlands residents demand delay

But when Wehrley finished presenting that outline to the Budget and Finance Committee on Tuesday night, representatives of the Wauwatosa Homeowners Association, representing the Washington Highlands, took the floor and lambasted the city for failing to consult them on the plan.

Mike Anich of the WHA read a lengthy prepared statement, and Lisa Wood, president of WHA seconded him, both demanding the city put off for at least four weeks any further consideration of the proposal. That, they said, was the time it would take for them to meet and discuss the matter as a board and to inform and take feedback from WHA's 400-household membership.

Ald. Pete Donegan, who represents the Highlands as part of the 1st District, tried to reassure the residents that there was no risk involved at this point just in putting in the application, and that the possibility of saving millions of dollars and getting the project into planning was a boon to all of East Tosa and the entire city.

Donegan repeatedly questioned and requestioned Wehrley to make sure his understanding was correct – that the city was under no obligation in applying now, that public hearings would be held, and that it was important to make the application soon in the event that everybody should decide this was the right course.

But Ald. Jim Moldenhauer, Donegan's aldermanic partner in the 1st District, sided with the residents and said that he could not in conscience vote in favor of something that concerned them so much. He said he would support the four-week delay.

Compromise fails, postponement entails

With that split in the residents' home district, Ald. Joel Tilleson tried to reach a compromise. With some assurance from Wehrley that putting off a decision for two weeks would probably still give the city time to apply, Tilleson proposed tabling the item for the next Budget and Finance meeting.

Tilleson's 5th District is even more prone to flooding than the 1st, and he said that while he believed that applying to MMSD and proceeding was probably a good idea, he was willing to give Highlands residents that much time to digest the proposal, and to bring in a representative of MMSD to explain its part further.

But when the residents said they couldn't budge – they needed four weeks to consider it – Ald. Jill Organ of the 4th District moved to amend Tilleson's motion to tabling the matter for that long.

Donegan, recognizing that a delay of four weeks in committee meant another week before the full council could consider and approve the matter, did his best to sway enough members to defeat Organ's amendment.

He questioned Wehrley yet again about the timetable.

Wehrley said that nothing more would be known in two weeks or four weeks than is known now, and that the longer delay, taking the outcome into March, could very well cost the city a year in planning and implementation.

But only Tilleson and Ald. Craig Wilson voted with Donegan, and by the 5-3 vote, the motion to table went to four weeks.

'Can you live with this?'

Donegan, in one last attempt to move the matter forward now, was addressing his council colleagues as well, but he looked his three constituents directly in the eyes.

"Can you live with knowing that this may cause your neighbors to go through another year of flooding?" he asked.

They could, apparently, but answered only in repetition of what they had said before. The committee voted the four-week delay by a tally of 7-1, Donegan dissenting alone.

Sharpie February 01, 2013 at 06:40 PM
That's pretty crazy. Are those people so dumb that they cannot understand that applying does not mean deciding? Extremely selfish and stupid, there is a common sense way to save money (and improve the flooding situation) and they are probably concerned that a digger will appear in their neighbourhood. Even thought this is not the point since those issues could have been discussed before a decision is made.
Satori February 01, 2013 at 08:52 PM
Wow. 3 whiny residents of the Highlands took their ball and went home.
Junebug February 01, 2013 at 09:21 PM
Anyone who has been in a position of reviewing applications knows that if someone applies and withdraws, then their application conveniently finds its way to the bottom of the stack if they decide to later re-apply. Smart move by the committee.
Jack February 01, 2013 at 09:27 PM
I am sure you enjoy your 800 square foot apartment/ranch that you live with your 5 children and oversized wife, but the Highlands need to be protected. They carry the water you refuse to/or can't carry.
Jack February 01, 2013 at 09:32 PM
Thats right, ruin the quaintness of the crown jewel of Tosa, the Highlands.....the only neighborhood that separates us from Hell, good idea. Idiot liberals.
Random Blog Commenter February 01, 2013 at 09:58 PM
While I'm inclined to think that the MMSD option could be a very good deal for Wauwatosa, we have seen lately with other projects around town that have unintended costs/consequences that a pause to better vet a proposal probably isn't a bad idea.
Satori February 01, 2013 at 10:56 PM
That's an uncanny ability you have there Jack! Can you share some more tricks from your years on the carnival circuit?
Manich February 02, 2013 at 06:27 AM
Mr. Price---you are entitled to your opinion and hyperbole but not your facts. The residents of the WHA were told by the City of their plans to transfer jurisdictional control only 4 days before the City proposed starting this process. The “small group of irate” citizens was actual the BOD of the WHA, speaking on behalf of the 400 homeowners in the Highlands, who jointly own the 7 acres of parks that surround the creek. They asked (not demanded) time to study what “transfer of jurisdictional control” means. At the end of the night the committee voted 7-1 to put the brakes on this process until the one entity who could answer that question could be consulted, the MMSD. By the City’s own admission Tuesday night, they have been in talks with MMSD for weeks concerning this transfer. The City’s lack of transparency, openness and planning would be the cause of any alleged missed budget cycles. Donegan’s question "Can you live with knowing that this may cause your neighbors to go through another year of flooding?", was comical if not absurd. It ended being a pathetic attempt to change the vote of the Committee, who by that time had made up their minds and had come to agree with the homeowners who again were merely requesting time to study a proposal that will impact generations. Lastly, if it is shown that the MMSD has the resources and expertise to better reengineer the water flow through our parks, this will be welcomed and embraced by the residents.
Jim Price February 02, 2013 at 07:38 AM
I calls 'em as I see's 'em, Mike.
Jack February 02, 2013 at 01:33 PM
Then you need a new prescription Mr. Price.
I do not live in the highlands February 02, 2013 at 06:25 PM
There is a different tenor in this story and towards the residents potentially impacted by this project and that demonstrated in previous stories about a small group of plucky, determined citizens who used citizen pressure against overwhelming odds to make the city suggest an alternative that shifted a project onto a different group of residents. Just calling 'em as I see's em.
90th street resident without any trees February 02, 2013 at 06:37 PM
Wow imagine that, the city doesn't notify the residents who will be negatively affected by a flood abatement project! Shocker! Then when the residents find out and ask or more time to get up to speed on the project they are called selfish. The city engineer is trying to pull another Meinecke Ave sewer project fat one-oops lets forget to tell all of 90th street about devasting their street. Don't fall for it people! The city is being run by a bunch of idiots. Stand your ground, they told us 90th street residents they would learn from their mistakes in not properly notifying residents. Guess thy forgot a mere 8 months later.
Cassandra February 02, 2013 at 09:28 PM
Big surprise! Another case of the City failing to provide information and adequate notice to residents in advance of a decision, then claiming "Time is of the essence" and a decision needs to be made immediately, preferably before anyone has the opportunity to think or check out other sources of information. Given the whoppers told by staff on a regular basis, it is time to slow down the decision making process so people have time to get some actual facts.
Paul Thomas February 05, 2013 at 02:00 AM
My wife told me about this web site to get information about Wauwatosa, the Patch. Wow, after reading this dreadful piece of biased writing, you can count me out on ever coming back, much less ever supporting its advertisers. It sure would be great if somewhere there was some unbiased reporting. I guess that is the new oxymoron.
anita February 06, 2013 at 12:15 AM
Paul, please point out what you find so disturbingly biased.

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