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GOP warns DNR about appraisals in denying
Dane County land grant

Wisconsin State Journal article by Matt DeFour

Republicans on Monday (March 27, 2017) rejected a nearly $350,000 state grant to buy a rural Dane County parcel, sending a message to the Department of Natural Resources over the way it appraises property for purchase. 

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, said before it voted 12-4 to reject the proposal that Republicans have been pressing the DNR on the issue for the past year-and-a-half. “ My end goal is to develop a system where we are getting appropriate appraisals,” Nygren said. “I challenge the DNR to develop an appraisal system that gives us real information and real choices and not just an inflated choice and saying ‘trust us.’ ” 

The committee’s four Democrats voted against the motion from Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, to reject the proposal to spend $346,100 from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. They suggested approving no more than $326,000 based on a lower appraisal. 

“I can’t disagree with the appraisal issue,” said Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. But denying the funding “doesn’t give any direction for individuals to go back and proceed in a certain way,” she added. “It really seems like a no, rather than a redirect.”

The issue came up involving the purchase of 102.5 acres of marshy farmland east of Oregon in the southwest corner of the town of Dunn owned by the estate of Richard and Arlene Nelson. The land is protected by a 2002 conservation easement, so it can’t be developed, but the state funds would have been used to increase public access to the adjacent 1,096-acre Hook Lake Bog/Grass Lake Wildlife Area for fishing, trapping and hiking.

Groundswell is seeking to buy the property for $685,000 with the state picking up half the total cost, the town of Dunn paying $60,000 and Dane County paying up to $286,000. The deal was supposed to be closed by Nov. 30, but the Nelsons’ estate has informally granted an extension in order to secure state approval. The DNR submitted the request to the Joint Finance Committee on June 30 and an objection was raised the next day.

Monday’s rejection by the committee means the land trust would have to submit a new application, DNR spokesman Jim Dick said.

As required by state law, two appraisals were commissioned for the project. Groundswell appraisal came in at $574,000 and the DNR appraisal came in at $685,000. A DNR-licensed appraiser who reviewed both amounts determined the DNR figure was more appropriate because it more closely aligned with nearby property sales.

“The department strives to provide the committee with appropriate appraisals based on statutory guidelines and appraisal industry standards, but we are also looking for opportunities to improve on the system as Representative Nygren suggests,” Dick said.

Republicans, however, objected to using the higher appraisal, particularly for the buildings on the property, which Olsen said could be a liability if they have to be torn down to allow for public access.

“That doesn’t mean it’s dead,” Olsen said. “We believe they could come back with a number that’s a fair number for the state to put in.”

Groundswell executive director Jim Welsh said the family may decide to sell the property, which the Nelsons bought in the 1940s, to another private owner, closing the window of opportunity to make it accessible to the public.

Welsh noted that Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators have encouraged the use of stewardship funds for increasing access to public lands, so it’s disappointing that the Hook Lake Bog project may not happen. The property would have provided space for a new parking area and prairie restoration.

“From the landowner’s perspective and our perspective, just tell us how you want the process to work and the rules, but please don’t change those rules at the 11th hour,” Welsh said.

Questions? Contact Jim Welsh at jim@nhlt.org or call 608-258-9797.  

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