Loss of land, tax dollars continues for Town of Waukesha in annexations

Community Development Department
The orange parcels, previously town land, have been annexed into the city this year. The city is shown in blue.
Published on: 11/6/2013

Land is a valuable commodity.

City of Waukesha officials know it. Town of Waukesha officials know it.

Keeping land or adding more of it can bolster a community's tax base and aid in the growth of underutilized areas. Meanwhile, losing it can have an adverse effect that can hurt a community financially for years to come.

Former Town Chairwoman and Plan Commissioner Angie E. Van Scyoc said the town could be in trouble after losing swaths of land annexed to the city for various reasons.

"It's just the beginning," Van Scyoc said. "It's very clear that they (the city) are going to absorb the Town of Waukesha. We're talking about millions of dollars lost to the city."

Annexations can change where these dollars are going almost instantly.

Over the years

From 2002 to 2010, the City of Waukesha saw a boom as 717 acres of Town of Waukesha land assessed at more than $8 million was annexed into the city.

However, in 2011, Waukesha Geographic Information System Coordinator Greg Schauer said there was only one annexation of 1.46 acres.

But in 2012, more annexations began surfacing as the Smart family, who own many acres of land around Waukesha, sought annexation for the land they own. They annexed two parcels, assessed at $449,900 totaling 96 acres, on the southeast corner of Tenny Avenue and East Sunset Drive into the city.

The annexation went through in early December and while it's still pending at the city level, it made way for the Meijer commercial development after a zoning and land use change. The 3.4-acre A.W. Bryant park property, assessed at $73,400 (west of Milky Way Road and south of Sunset Drive), was also annexed in late 2012. This parcel had been tied to the Five Diamonds baseball and softball complex (36.62 acres), which was also almost annexed last year.

The owners of the facility filed a petition with the state to annex 36.62 acres east of Highway 164 and south of Sunset Drive into the city. However, the Common Council eventually denied the request because a majority felt the discrepancies the owners had with the Town Board over lighting and start of game times were at the basis of the annexation.

The town lost $1,135 in real estate tax dollars in 2012 through these annexations, according to the most recent tax bills for each property on the Waukesha County website.

Annexations jump

In 2013, annexations have only increased.

Schauer said, as of last week, 249 acres have been annexed from the town to the city. This total could have been greater had the city's Department of Public Works staff's recommendation of annexing Town Hall into the city to receive services been approved a couple months ago.

But since then, more have been approved.

The city's Common Council approved annexing two more properties at its meeting Tuesday night — 1.34 acres at Kensington Drive in order to get city sewer connection and 6.78 acres, northwest corner of West Sunset Drive and South Prairie Avenue at the request of Sunset Prairie, LLC and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Waukesha County Inc.

The annexations will cause the town to lose more than $8,600 annually.

"It's a direct hit to revenue that the town receives," Town Chairman John Marek said.

It's the property owner's right to annex and the city does not come to the owner to force annexations, City of Waukesha Planner Jennifer Andrews said.

She said there's many reasons property owners annex, but it often boils down to providing more services to an area that wants to develop in the future. Other times annexation is sought when a town owner's septic fails or there are problems with their well.

"That's when you see them weighing the cost of paying for something like a mound system or paying for the (water and sewer) connection," Andrews said. "Once you're connected you have to pay for usage, but don't have to worry about replacing a well or septic. So that's the benefit."

The city, which has a much higher tax rate ($9.63 per thousand dollars vs. $1.88 in the town, according to last year's budget) because of the services it provides, also allows property owners to create smaller lots than in the town, Andrews said.

Town dishes out blame

But could the town have saved some of the property that was annexed into the city this year?

If you talk to the current and former town chairman, they each say it's the other's fault for why the town is losing land and precious dollars.

Marek, who beat Van Scyoc in the spring election after a heated campaign, said it's not a surprise why property owners wanted to leave the town. In January, the Town of Waukesha Board voted to take most of the town out of the City of Waukesha's future water service area. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission put the town in the service area in December 2009.

"Most of the annexations that occurred at the beginning of the year are a direct result of altering the water service area," Marek said. "Had the entire town been included, those annexations would not have occurred.

"They flat out told us they are annexing because the town threatened to remove them from the service area."

Marek used Rick Hase as an example. Hase, who owns Landscape Company on Merrill Hills Road, was prepared to annex his 30-acre property into the city in early May.

However, once the town changed its position on the water service area at the end of May after Marek was in office, Andrews said Hase canceled his annexation request.

Van Scyoc, meanwhile, still stands by the board's decision of not putting the entire town in the city's water service area.

"It was not a quick decision," Van Scyoc said. "It was very well thought out and based on the city's lack of willingness to give us control over annexations. In my opinion, the city did not negotiate with us in good faith; from my vantage point having the entire town in the water service area is strictly self serving, effectively allowing the city to grow at town taxpayer expense."

Van Scyoc said her worry is if the city is not successful in its quest for Great Lakes water that it will tap into the town's aquifer source and create longer-lasting problems.

She believes including the town will negatively impact the city's quest for Lake Michigan water when it is reviewed. The city is under a court-ordered deadline to have radium-compliant water but still needs all of the governors of the eight Great Lakes states to approve its application.

The city said after releasing its updated application to the Department of Natural Resources that it was delayed in part because of the two years "it took Town of Waukesha officials to decide to be included in the city's water supply service area that was recommended by regional planners."

Losing more parcels

The city will grow further with land on Sunset Drive with the site of the formerly proposed Dunkin' Donuts and the nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul. Dunkin' Donuts had been approved earlier this year in the town when Van Scyoc was at the helm, given that there were no restrictions of a drive-through. There was one but she said the county gave them the go-ahead to remove the restrictions.

But it was ultimately shot down in July at the town level after Van Scyoc was out of office and now the developers are heading to the city.

Van Scyoc, who said her board acted in "good faith," added the restriction should have been lifted since Sunset Drive looks a lot different than it did when that restriction was put in place.

"The fiasco with Dunkin' Donuts property was started by the previous board when they approved the site with a drive-through when there was a clear violation," Marek said. "That never should have gotten this far. Either they ignored the ordinances or are incompetent. It's one of the two. Either one of those gave us a terrible outcome."

While the property owners for the site recently said it no longer has a deal with Dunkin' Donuts, a commercial outlot appears likely to come into the city and St. Vincent de Paul's payment in lieu of taxes ($6,700) will no longer go to the town.

Islands coming to city

This property is labeled as a town island, areas of town land that are completely surrounded by the city. These islands have formed as a result of development expanding and boundaries becoming more skewed over the years, Andrews said.

She said the city is "always anxious to eliminate town islands" as a way to provide more cost-effective services. But she added the city doesn't have the ability to force a property owner in a town island to annex. The state must also review all annexation requests.

Marek said while he understands the city's position, "we don't want to lose any islands. I don't want a single square foot of land to leave the Town of Waukesha."

Van Scyoc called the annexations "devastating" and avoidable. And that her administration had kept many of the islands in the city's original water service area because the infrastructure to serve them was already in place.

Marek's idea

To eliminate annexations in the future, Marek suggests incorporation.

"It's a long and arduous process," Marek said. "But the bottom line is that's a long ways out and a great deal of research would have to go into that. I am looking at it but no formal steps have been taken on that. But certainly it's the only way to protect town land."

Van Scyoc says this idea was already tried and that "it's impossible."

"Over the last two-and-a-half years of trying to protect the town we explored that and the town tried incorporation in the 1990s and it doesn't qualify and we were denied for state statute reasons," Van Scyoc said.

The City of Waukesha has a border agreement with the City of Pewaukee but that doesn't seem likely with the Town of Waukesha.

"The city refused any agreement and the city stopped any discussion," Van Scyoc said.

However, Marek says a lack of communication between the city and the town exists because of Van Scyoc. He accused her of not talking with Mayor Jeff Scrima during a majority of her time as chairwoman.

"(A border agreement) is another avenue we could pursue but the fact is that border agreement takes 10 years to put in place and I don't want to wait that long," Marek said. "(Things should be better) now that we're talking with the city again having a direct line of communication. Unfortunately, the previous town board hadn't spoken with the mayor for more than a year and a half. How can you have intergovernmental relations when you don't talk with your neighbors."

Van Scyoc says when she had a meeting with city officials discussing the water service area Scrima did not show up and added during her tenure, joint projects were done with the city.

"John is not aware because we have done projects with the city," Van Scyoc said. "He speaks without knowledge and that's dangerous."

Keeping land in the town

Protecting town land was one of Van Scyoc's top priorities while in office. This is why she fought against the Town of Brookfield's incorporation, which included 288 acres from the Town of Waukesha. It was an expensive fight and one that she says the town should continue to be on the look out for.

But Marek said he and Supervisor Brian Fischer were instrumental in working with officials in Madison to get a bill passed to protect the encroachment of Town of Brookfield lands through Senate Bill 207.

Van Scyoc took issue with Marek taking credit because she said she and the former board started these discussions.

Looking at the big picture, however, Van Scyoc and Marek do agree on one thing: the town can't keep losing these parcels.

"The town has shrunk over the years," she said. "We need to protect our land because every piece provides money and while there's less people and less land there's still the expense.

"And that's when taxes go up. We need to keep taxes low and protect our borders. These are critical issues and life-changing concerns."