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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Paper
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Neighbors oppose Madison plan to build ski trail that would damage trees
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Steve Pullara by the fence and one of the possibly affected trees: 'The city is not being a good neighbor.'
Steve Pullara by the fence and one of the possibly affected trees: 'The city is not being a good neighbor.'
Credit:Bill Lueders

Steve Pullara knows what people will say: He and his neighbors are a bunch of NIMBYs. The thing they're fighting is literally in their backyards. And admittedly, they're worried about losing privacy if the city of Madison locates a ski trail along the fence behind their far-east-side homes, as part of the planned new Door Creek Park.

Trail users, says Pullara, "would be looking literally right into our houses." Many of the homes on Bluff Point Drive have large picture windows and landscaping added with the expectation of seclusion.

But Pullara and his neighbors insist there are larger issues in play, and people in the community back them up.

"The city is treating itself differently than it would treat a private developer," says attorney Ron Trachtenberg, a former Madison alderman who has advocated, without pay, on the neighbors' behalf. "That alienates people, and that's not the way government should behave." He says a developer would have to add vegetation to screen the path from residents' homes; the city has no such plans.

Pullara, who questions whether this segment of the path (about 8% of the total) needs to be built at all, agrees: "The city is not being a good neighbor."

The proposed path would be built on the root systems of 23 trees, says Steven Vicen, a professional arborist hired by the neighbors. He wrote in a report that if a bulldozer were used to cut the path, as initially planned, "anywhere from 35% to 40% of the trees' root systems will be damaged, having a negative impact on the trees' health."

Further, Vicen says the city underestimated the number of affected trees and mis-measured others. One of the omitted trees is a lovely oak in Jim and Carol Weber's backyard. "We love our tree, and we don't want anything to damage it or kill it," says Carol Weber. Besides, "How attractive a path is this, right next to the fence line?"

Kevin Briski, Madison's new parks superintendent, calls the segment "an important loop" in the overall trail and promises that the root zones will be protected; the current plan is to dig them by hand. "There will be minimal impact to those root zones," he says. "We will provide extra care in going through those areas."

The neighbors aren't so sure. In September, several appeared at a Parks Commission meeting, where they were overruled. Last month they took their concerns to the Common Council, which after a lengthy discussion referred the matter back to the Parks Commission. But critics don't expect a change in plans when the commission revisits the matter on Nov. 24. Says Vicen, "It feels like they're determined to put this path in no matter what."

The issue is reminiscent of another recently reported by Isthmus. In 2004, west-side residents led by Tom Link fought a city plan to install sewers beneath a street, saying it would harm a half-dozen giant old burr oak trees. The city rejected these concerns; now all six trees are dead or dying ("Oaks Croak, City Blamed," 10/17/08).

Last week, city forester Marla Eddy and other staff met with neighbors and Vicen at the proposed site. The meeting was arranged by Briski, who warned in an email that "If confrontation occurs, we agree to end the meeting...."

Pullara and Vicen say this odd admonition made the meeting unproductive: Whenever they raised an issue or made a suggestion to better protect the trees, they were accused of being confrontational.

But Briski says he just "wanted to be sure we have good conversation and good dialogue" regarding an issue on which passions run high. After all, "The residents are ultimately going to be our partners."

Will Lee's lead be followed?

Lee Enterprises, half-owner of Capital Newspapers, which owns and publishes the Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times, on Oct. 31 suspended 401(k) contributions to its employees, and halved its matches of employees' own contributions. But it remains unclear whether employees in Madison will be affected.

"That's not been decided," says Bill Johnston, the State Journal's publisher and current president of Capital Newspapers. He says Lee has decided that Madison is not automatically subject to this change. A decision will likely be made at a board meeting later this week.

According to a State Journal employee, Lee currently contributes about 6% of salary to employees' 401(k) plans, and makes 100% matches of additional contributions up to 5% of salary. Following Lee's directive, the source says, would probably translate into about a 10% compensation cut.

Making the change for just Lee employees would be difficult, unless similar changes are made for workers at The Capital Times, which has a comparable 401(k) plan, and Capital Newspapers.

Capital Times publisher Clayton Frink refuses to discuss the matter: "It's none of your business." How can he say that when newspapers regularly report on local companies? "I don't know," responds Frink, apparently not a big believer in Bill Evjue's maxim about giving the people the truth and the freedom to discuss it.

But Dave Zweifel, the paper's editor emeritus, says no decisions have been made regarding the 401(k) plans of workers at The Capital Times.

DNR on water levels: Hurry up and wait

Lake Mendota, which is managed artificially high for the benefit of boaters, last summer reached dangerously high levels for the third time in less than two decades, causing widespread flooding and raising grave concerns ("Madison Flooding Catastrophe Feared," 6/13/08).

On Aug. 15, the city officially asked the state Department of Natural Resources to conduct a local lake-level review, a politically contentious move that some felt was long overdue. But the waiting, it seems, has just begun.

On Monday, the DNR responded by saying, in effect, that the city needed to take the lead in doing more while recognizing that nothing can be done unless many more entities are brought into the process. (For the letters, see here).

DNR Secretary Matthew Frank said the city needed to "request a specific desired water-level regime as a starting point" after conducting "an initial round of information gathering and intergovernmental cooperation." It also needed to build a consensus for change among 22 governmental units and user groups, including "at least 10 towns, cities and villages" that would be affected by the change.

None of this, noted Frank, can possibly be done by next spring, as the city had asked. And so the DNR suggests some interim measures: more studies, steps to "buy out or flood-proof structures that are prone to flooding," bar the construction of new dwellings with basements, and build infiltration systems in parks and encourage rain gardens to reduce runoff.

In other words, let's hope 2009 is a rain-light year.

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