The Wisconsin Rapids area native said a trip to London cemented in his mind what he wanted to see happen.
"I visited the royal Kew Gardens about five or six years ago, and when I came back it seemed like keeping everything natural was the right thing to do," said Clark, who spent most of his life in Illinois before moving full time to his picturesque Walworth County locale about 15 years ago. "This is one of the few large pieces of land around here. Jim Jackley of the DNR had been bugging me for years, and he brought the county into the discussion."
The county received an appraisal of the property at $1.91 million last December, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had a second one done in March that came in at $2 million.
The parties agreed to a $5,000 purchase option, which ended in mid-August. However, they recently extended the option, for free, until Jan. 31 because the county has been waiting since May for initial Department of Natural Resources approval of a stewardship grant that would provide a 50 percent matching amount (about $955,000) that would be applied toward the acquisition price.
Upon tentative approval from DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, the county must adopt an ordinance allowing hunting and trapping on the property, and then the documentation heads to the legislative Joint Committee on Finance.
Preserving open space
Clark’s property straddles both sides of the White River -- about 9,200 feet of frontage -- and parcels sit on both sides of Sheridan Springs Road about five miles northeast of Lake Geneva. It features a pond, walking trails, wooded areas, picnic tables, a barn and house.
Clark, 82, has owned the land for almost 50 years but said it’s time for somebody else to manage the place, more than half of which is considered farm land.
Proponents say the county lacks public parkland, and this pastoral location offers everything they have been looking for: hiking, canoeing/kayaking, picnicking and hunting.
"The thing is that this has been a dream of Mr. Clark’s for a long time," County Board Chairwoman Nancy Russell said. "The county always has been efficient concerning its parkland … We’ve been told from the beginning that this is the type of property the DNR wants to preserve. It has woodlands, paths and everything is in great shape because Mr. Clark has been a wonderful caretaker.
"We understand the economy, but there always are reasons to say no to a project like this," Russell added. "We see a lot of open space, but it won’t last forever, and once it’s lost, you can’t get it back. It’s a magnificent piece of property."
Supervisor Dan Kilkenny agreed, pointing out that a lot of residents have said the same thing.
"I believe that we got an 83 percent favorable rating at the public hearing, and that pretty much matched previous surveys," Kilkenny said. "We set up a park acquisition fund back in 2007 or ’08 and put $50,000 toward it each year. Some say we’re paying too much, but it’s all based on the appraisals. There won’t be an increase in the tax levy. Sure, state taxpayers provide the DNR funds, but if we don’t take advantage of it, the money will simply go somewhere else."
Mariette Nowak was director of the Wehr Nature Center in Franklin for 18 years. She has lived in Walworth County since 2000 and has been a member of the park committee most of that time.
"It’s a wonderful opportunity," Nowak said. "We had a public meeting in March, and the vast majority of people were in favor of this proposal. I’m so enthused because this fits into our park plan beautifully."
It also would give the county desired parkland in three quadrants, with the southwest region -- Sharon, Walworth, Darien and Darien townships -- remaining in its long-range strategy.
Currently, the only county parks are Natureland near the southern tip of Whitewater Lake in northern Richmond Township and Price Park on Hodunk Road in Lafayette Township, plus the seven-acre Veterans Park in the city of Elkhorn. The county also manages the state-owned, 12-mile White River Trail between Elkhorn and Burlington.
Still, the price tag has been a major issue for four county supervisors who have opposed the venture throughout the process -- Rich Brandl, Carl Redenius, Rick Stacey and Ken Monroe -- who have been voted down 7-4.
Monroe has been the town of Bloomfield chairman and a county board member since 2012.
"I understand the need for parkland and open spaces, but some people haven’t thought enough about what the costs are going to be to keep it going," Monroe said. "The barn needs a new roof, and we’re not sure how we’ll fix it. There are too many questions that should be answered before purchasing it.
"Do we have big enough mowers for the trails, and who grooms it in the winter for snowmobilers?" he asked. "I admit it’s a beautiful piece of property and would make a nice park. It’s just the expense."
Brandl is a dairy farmer on the Rock/Walworth county line in the town of Sharon.
"I just feel the price we’re paying for it is way too high," Brandl said. "I don’t think we negotiated enough. Another big question is the cost of maintaining it. ... Another thing is that they want to have (county) parks in all four quadrants. If we’re putting $50,000 into the park fund per year, that adds up to about 17 years to pay back this loan. So what happens here and where does the money come from for a park in this area?"
Redenius is a crop farmer who lives in the town of Richmond. He echoed Brandl’s sentiments.
"I’m not against buying parkland, but I’m against this deal and how they’re going about it," Redenius said. "This property has a lot of farm land, and even though it’s not the best like in Rock Prairie, I don’t like to see us lose so much of it.
"But the barn roof needs replacing, and they’re talking about making it into a nature center … how much will that cost?" Redenius added.
"I’ve never received a call from anybody saying they’re in favor of it, but I’ve heard from a number of people who want to know what’s going on," Redenius said. "My opinion is that we need to maintain and take care of what we’ve got."
Despite those reservations, the county likely will be maintaining about 200 more acres in the near future.
The house, barn and five acres were excluded from the DNR grant request to allow the county to dictate its use, giving it the option of leasing the home for revenue, razing it or doing whatever it deems best.
Kevin Brunner, the county’s director of central services, said the site plan is still in a state of flux, but the details will be worked out once the dust settles.
"Yes, the barn needs a new roof, and we have discussed the possibility of using it for a nature center," Brunner said. "But it is more a part of the long-term situation. This will be a public park, so we want it to be ready for use as soon as possible, meaning getting the parking and restrooms done. It’s conceivable that it could open next spring or summer."
The county received a $45,000 stewardship grant for improvements, such as putting in parking lots, restrooms and a canoe/kayak launch.
"It has so much potential and all of the amenities, and Mr. Clark has said from the get-go he wants to preserve it," Brunner said. "Some have said this isn’t good timing, that we should wait until the economy gets better. They have concerns about operating costs. But when we got involved in discussions he was asking well in excess of $3 million. You can argue that $1.9 (million) or $2 million is too much, but that’s what the appraisal numbers say."
In the budget?
The county board will have to vote again whether to accept the DNR grant and the park project. That means, if the process is completed before the Labor Day weekend, the park project could be submitted as part of County Administrator Dave Bretl’s initial 2014 budget. Brunner said he would submit it as part of the public works department’s request.
"The first draft of the county budget, which I prepare, will be released at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 5, at a committee of the whole meeting of the county board," Bretl said. "The reason why the annual budget becomes critical for the park acquisition has to do with the vote required for approval.
"The park was not a budgeted item in 2013; therefore, a vote of two-thirds of the board, or eight members, is needed to approve a budget amendment in order to buy the park this year. To date, there have only been seven affirmative votes. If the park is included in the 2014 budget, only a majority vote of the board is needed (six members, assuming everyone attends the budget approval meeting in November)."
Bretl said he won’t make any decisions on his version of the budget until late this month.
"Given that seven supervisors have gone on record in support of the park, I obviously need to give it serious consideration when I put together the draft budget," he said.
Backers are optimistic that the funding will come from the state.
"In my opinion, this is financially prudent and has been in our plans for a long time," Kilkenny said. "We’ve addressed this responsibly and it’s been well thought out. And this is high-quality property."
As for Clark, he said bittersweet isn’t how he would describe his emotions.
"I fell in love with this place and always will love it," Clark said. "I mean, you can see for miles on the higher ground, and these great trees … many of them were planted by birds and squirrels dropping their seeds. As long as people can enjoy it, that’s all that matters. It’s just a spectacular piece of land."