Walworth County wants to buy more parkland, but is price too steep?
LYONS Duane Clark and Kevin Brunner stood on a grassy bank of the White River on a recent spring afternoon with birds chirping in the woods around them and water gurgling over rocks a few feet away.
They were showing a Gazette reporter and photographer around Clark's property off Sheridan Springs Road in the town of Lyons. The land is less than five miles northeast of Lake Geneva, but Brunner said it feels like someplace else.
"Do you think you're in northern Wisconsin here?" he asked.
Clark's land was, undeniably, a nice place to be on such a day.
His 200 acres are a mix of farm and parkland on rolling hills, with a picturesque pond, wide grass trails and fields of winter wheat. The White River runs through the southern part of it, with woods on either side.
For the past few years, Clark has been looking to sell his property, known as the Copper Kettle Ranch, and Walworth County officials are looking to buy.
There isn't enough parkland in Walworth County, according to Brunner, its central services director. Buying a property like Clark's would open opportunities for residents to hike, canoe, kayak, picnic and hunt on public land, Brunner says.
Clark's not just giving the place away, of course: It will cost $1.91 million if the county wants to buy his 190.5 acres.
A grant from the state Department of Natural Resources could cover half of the cost, but that still would leave Walworth County on the hook for $955,000.
The price tag has proven a tough sell for some members of the county board, who could derail plans to buy Clark's land. Some members have said the land is over-valued and that the county shouldn't be putting money toward a new park given the economic climate.
The question before Walworth County becomes: Is the beauty worth the price?
Looking for more parks
It might be famous for its lakes and outdoor recreation, but proponents of buying Clark's property say Walworth County lags in county parkland.
Brunner referred to a chart that shows Walworth behind a number of comparable counties in the acres of parkland it owns and the money it spends on parks per resident.
The county board approved a plan in the late 1990s that called for buying more land for parks and identified land on the White River as particularly desirable, Brunner said.
The southeastern portion of the county needs more parkland, Walworth County Board Chairwoman Nancy Russell said.
"Other than (Big Foot Beach) state park, there really isn't very much in that portion of the county that's available for residents," Russell said.
Clark approached the county with an interest in selling his land three years ago, Brunner said.
Most of it is farmland, about 70 percent according to the county. There's also Clark's house, an old barn and a shed.
The other 30 percent is wooded parkland, with five miles of trails Clark maintains running through the hills and along the pond and river.
"It's probably one of the most beautiful spots, certainly, in the county," Russell said.
Officials want to open the land to the public, providing picnic areas, a boat launch for canoes or kayaks and maybe a nature center in the barn, Brunner said.
"This is an opportunity that doesn't come along very often," Russell said.
"There certainly isn't, to my knowledge, another piece of property available that is of this quality."
The county applied for a DNR grant in May that would pay for half of the cost to buy the land, leaving $955,000 to be covered by Walworth County.
The county has $300,000 saved in a fund dedicated to acquiring parkland, Brunner said, and would borrow the remainder from its general fund. It would pay down that loan in annual increments of $50,000, he said. That's money that now goes into the parkland fund.
Buying the land would have "zero tax impact," Brunner said.
Officials probably will find out in July if the DNR has approved Walworth County's grant application, Brunner said.
Proponents would not look to buy the park without a grant, Russell said.
Waiting for the DNR's decision means the project is on hold, after a spring filled with public comment sessions and committee meetings to discuss it.
If the grant is approved, the matter would come back to the county board for final approval, which isn't certain.
Price and timing
A number of Walworth County Board supervisors have raised questions about the push to buy Clark's land, saying the property is too expensive and not an appropriate use of resources.
Rick Stacey was one of four supervisors who in April voted against applying for the DNR grant. Seven voted in favor.
He's not against having more parks, Stacey said, but the price tag for Clark's land is too high.
"Right now is a bad time, and I don't think we can afford it," Stacey said.
Critics of the proposal say the county would end up buying a lot of farmland if it purchased Clark's whole property, with less than half the kind of parkland that could be used for recreation.
Clark has said he is not willing to split the property, Brunner said.
"I'm not so sure why we need to buy that," said Supervisor Richard Brandl, who also voted against the grant application. "If they want to buy 60 acres around the river at a decent price, that's fine."
Beyond the price to purchase it, Supervisor Carl Redenius said he was concerned about maintenance and the house and barn on the property.
He would rather see money for the park go toward other projects, such as roads, Redenius said.
That opposition could be a problem for proponents of the park.
Because the item wasn't in this year's budget, they need two-thirds of the county board—eight supervisors of the 11 supervisors—to vote in favor to secure funding, Brunner said.
Stacey, Brandl and Redenius said they would vote against purchasing the park if the matter comes before the board again. The fourth supervisor who voted, "No," in April, Supervisor Kenneth Monroe, could not be reached for comment.
If each votes, "No," the project would be turned down.
Russell said she's optimistic supervisors would approve buying the property.
The park could be open to the public within a year, Brunner said.
For now, though, the woods along the White River praised by Brunner that afternoon are still Duane Clark's backyard.