Pat Woicek has learned a thing or two about wetlands from her 36 years as a naturalist for the Cherokee Conservation Park on Madison's north side. For example, she knows the deleterious effects development can have on fragile wetland ecosystems.
"Once you begin urbanizing these areas, you're going to have construction silt going into the river, on top of the eventual runoff from roofs, cars, dog manure and lawn chemicals," Woicek says. "Of course, all of this carries into the lakes."
Woicek is dismayed by developer Dennis Tiziani's plans to build more than 750 housing units on about 175 acres near Cherokee Marsh, on land he owns that would be annexed into the city of Madison. Like some 140 other north-side residents, Woicek attended a Feb. 28 meeting at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center, where the project's proponents discussed specifics. She didn't like what she heard.
The project consists of several parcels, two of which lie in the upper areas of the marsh off Wheeler Road. But it's a 45-acre low-lying parcel abutting the marsh and the Yahara River that upsets Woicek. Tiziani, whose Cherokee Park Inc. also owns the Cherokee Country Club and much of the land in the vicinity, has considered putting at least 200 homes on this plot.
"It's a beautiful area, and I'm very much aware that the increased tax base would help the city budget, but it isn't worth the price," Woicek says. "If Tiziani wanted to do something for the community, he'd leave that one parcel alone."
Residents are also concerned about overcrowding, traffic congestion and taxpayer costs for providing services to annexed areas. But there appears to be little recourse for project opponents. Tiziani already owns the land, and he can get the necessary approvals with or without neighborhood support.
"It's difficult to say 'You can't develop here,' because he's within his rights as a developer to do so," says Common Council President Paul Van Rooy, who represents the district. "But he'll have to deal with the setbacks imposed by the wetlands."
The development plan calls for buffering the river with a piece of land, to reduce runoff. Woicek says that's not enough, given the ecological hazards she believes the development poses. And she is dumbstruck by developers' repeated claims that the land is being developed "to ensure the long-term economic viability of the Cherokee Country Club."
"Somehow, this doesn't seem nearly as important as our lakes," says Woicek. "I have nothing against the country club, but I don't think the residents of Dane County want to pay the price."
Cherokee Marsh sits at the top of Dane County's four lakes. Meandering from wetlands in Columbia County, the Yahara River (at this point called Cherokee Lake) empties into Cherokee Marsh and ultimately Lake Mendota. Because about 50% of the original wetlands in the lake's watershed have been depleted, Cherokee Marsh has assumed an increasingly critical - if ever-changing - role in the county's hydrological cycle.
According to Russ Hefty, Madison's conservation park resource supervisor, urban and agricultural runoff has degraded the marsh over the years. Because Cherokee is a peat marsh, it doesn't require many nutrients. But nutrients from runoff have shifted the composition to plants that prefer lots of nutrients. Hefty says the city's primary concern is that stormwater drains away from the marsh.
Cherokee Conservation Park, established in 1969, consists of 1,000 city-owned acres and another 3,000 outlying acres owned by the county and state. By the time Pat Woicek was hired in 1970, plans to develop 1,300 acres of the Cherokee Marsh area were already under way. The resultant campus, begun in the mid-'60s, has since grown to include a country club, more than 1,000 condos, townhouses and homes and an 18-hole golf course.
The area has grown at the rate of about 30 homes a year, which residents at the February meeting were told "is a very slow pace in development years." Representing Tiziani at the meeting was Tim Anderson, of Schreiber & Anderson, the firm Tiziani hired to design the development.
Tiziani wouldn't speak with Isthmus. He said there was nothing new to say. When asked to respond to residents' concerns, he responded, "What concerns? They had their chance to express their concerns."
But some residents feel their concerns are not being respected. Among them is Ronald Hetzler, a self-described "little guy" who lives on the corner of Wheeler and Ilene roads.
The current plan - still in its early phases - calls for 560 homes spread over 102 acres, including 14 acres of open space. Anderson told the audience that the moderate- to high-priced homes will be marketed toward "recreational-minded residents," presumably potential country club members.
This upland meadow isn't as sensitive as the low-lying 45 acres. But Hetzler says the project will still produce stormwater runoff that feeds algae blooms and degrades the lakes. He accuses Tiziani of forsaking the area's symbiotic relationship with its surrounding environs for the sole benefit of his country club.
"It's all about money," says Hetzler. "There's no stopping them. These guys have got answers for everything. How can you disprove them? They know what the marsh means to our lakes."
Van Rooy stresses that none of the area Tiziani plans to build on is protected wetland; in fact, it's on land that the city has earmarked for residential development. Furthermore, he says the city has good regulations in place to keep the marsh healthy.
"The public will be adequately protected," assures Van Rooy. "I want to see the wetlands protected, too. Tiziani has developed in the past and his developments are attractively done."
It may be a year or more before ground breaks on the project. First, annexations are needed from the towns of Burke and Westport, which Tiziani plans to file in mid-April. Formal plans must also be submitted to the city's Plan Commission for review.
"A development will occur," says Van Rooy, "but the city will insist on a buffer zone and will protect as many trees as it can. Certainly the Plan Commission will listen to concerns. Any development will be within city requirements."
Hefty applauds developers' efforts to avoid unforeseen complications. "They're trying to come up with an exact proposal," says Hefty. "They're doing this the smart way."
Woicek remains apprehensive despite these assurances. She recalls how pristine the Yahara River and Lake Mendota were before development in the area mushroomed. "The runoff from these urban areas is amazing," she says. "I've seen the change in our lake quality. Tiziani is not paying attention to that degradation."
Hetzler, meanwhile, says he'll continue attending meetings and objecting to the plans. "I'm so bothered by this," he says. "I guess I'm a pessimist, but I see this as only hurting our lakes. But what can the little guy do?"