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Reef Land Gift Poses No Risks for City

City attorney says owning portion of geologic gem would be an honor.

Accepting a gift of land that includes a portion of an ancient fossil reef poses no significant risks for the city and creates an opportunity for the city to preserve a geologic gem of international significance, according to city attorney Alan Kesner.

The 2.44-acre property at 1245 N. 62nd St., , includes a portion of a steep bluff just north of West State Street known as the . The fossilized coral reef first was discovered nearly 170 years ago and dates back 425 million years, to the Silurian geologic period, when the area was a thriving coral reef in 100-foot deep tropical waters.

The land was vacated when Derse moved from Wauwatosa to the Menomonee River Valley two years ago, selling its 3.7-acre Tosa headquarters site at 1234 N. 62nd St. to HSI Properties, developers of , and promising to donate the 2.44-acre site to the city. That pledge became a formal offer in May.

Kesner said he and city staff have done the necessary due diligence to ensure the city would not incur significant financial or other liabilities in taking on ownership of the land. The property includes a small swathe of paved land beneath the bluff and a 2,592-square-foot concrete building, but 75 percent of the property is the overgrown hillside.

And it is that unmanaged and overgrown bluff portion of the site that is of greatest value to the city, according to Kesner.

Schoonmaker Reef is the first ancient fossil reef discovered in North America, in 1844, and it earned honorary distinction as a National Historic Landmark in 1998. The city's Historic Preservation Commission is considering local historic designation of the reef as well, which would provide greater protection for Schoonmaker Reef.

Kesner said the due diligence to consider whether to accept the land donation included a property site inspection by city engineering and parks and forestry staff; property condition reports; title, certified survey, city property and court records reviews; building inspection; and a brownfield assessment, as the property abuts the former Western Metal Specialties foundry. The environmental assessment showed no groundwater contamination.

A city records search showed a permit was issued in 1959 to install a 1,000-gallon gasoline tank on the site, but there is no record the tank was ever installed or removed, and there is no indication such a tank currently is on the site, according to Kesner.

Property lines at the top of the bluff blurred over the years, leading to some encroachment by private homeowners on what would become city land, Kesner said. The property lines now are staked, so the residential property owners are aware that some portions of their yards are actually another's property. Kesner said there is no urgent need for the city to reclaim that land when it becomes city property, but property owners atop the bluff know the city would not cede its rights to the land.

Kesner notes the city's intention in taking ownership of the property is to keep it in its current condition without any upgrades until development occurs on an adjacent . Israel's property, the former Western Metal site, is cleared but idle, although he has said he intends to come back to the city again this year with revised plans for a residential development on the property. As part of that development, the city has designated $185,000 of a $1.9 million in tax incremental financing (TIF) package for the Israel project to cover the costs of sidewalks, security fences and security lighting to create a buffer between the Israel site and the reef.

"We're honored to be able to take this site on as a city and preserve it," Kesner told Community Development Committee members.

The committee agreed, unanimously endorsing Kesner's recommendation that the Common Council accept the land donation. Council approval is needed to set the property transfer in motion.

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