Suburbs still growing with seller’s market

The Business Journal of Milwaukee – May 5, 2000
by Kelly Quigley

Bill Carity, owner of the Brookfield development firm Carity Land Corp., won’t waste any time when he builds the new Quiet Wood Creek subdivision in the city of Muskego.

Typically, when building a 142-lot development, Carity would break the project up into several phases and sell a few lots each month. But Carity knows the current suburban real estate market is so hungry for more than that, and he’s decided to take a riskier move and develop all the lots at once.

“Under normal conditions, I would phase the development into 60 lots at a time,” Carity said. “But I have expectations that I can sell most of these even before construction is finished.”

Already, without any advertising, Carity has sold about one third of the lots, which are about one third of an acre. Construction will begin at the end of May.

“Despite the fact that we have higher interest rates than we’ve seen in a number years, the demand for housing remains as strong as my memory serves me,” Carity said.

By the end of March, 1,183 residential building permits had been filed in metropolitan Milwaukee, an increase of 28 percent over the same period last year, according to the Metropolitan Builders Association of Greater Milwaukee (MBA).

However, building permits for single-family homes actually have dropped 15 percent in the area, which is a sign of rising interest rates and a serious lack of land inventory in Milwaukee’s suburbs.

“If you just pay attention to raw data, there are fewer (single-family home) building permits,” Carity said. “Land has been used up, and there are very few large parcels that are available for developers such as myself to acquire and get approved for residential development.”

The lack of inventory is driving up prices, said Matt Moroney, MBA executive director.

“For the past three years, it’s just been an outstanding market,” Moroney said. “But now we’re hearing from developers that there’s not enough available land, and as a result, we’re seeing the average prices of lots increase.”

Anne Rodriggs, vice president of Pewaukee-based David and Goliath Builders Inc., is working with several clients to find land to develop in Milwaukee suburbs. Demand is as strong as it’s been over the past few years, but the lack of land is a roadblock for people who want to build a home, she said.

“For many years, when customers came in to build with us, they already had a lot,” Rodriggs said. “That’s not the case anymore. It’s getting harder and harder to develop the land.”

Brookfield developer Thompson Corp. took a new approach in dealing with the demand, said company saleswoman Laurie Herbst.

DNR compromises to protect garter snake, development

New policy eases costs, hassles for builders

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

It took 12 snakes and almost five years for Bill Carity to turn raw land into a subdivision.

The Butler’s garter snake, a protected species in Wisconsin, was discovered on his property in Menomonee Falls in 1999, and afterward, he struggled to satisfy the competing demands of the Department of Natural Resources and getting his project off the ground.

“The Butler’s took me completely by surprise,” said Carity, of Carity Land Corp. of Brookfield. “For a long time, it was a painful process.”

Reacting to gripes from numerous developers that a slender reptile was stalling their projects, Wisconsin officials have implemented a new policy to save the controversial Butler’s garter snake.

The DNR aims to protect the snake while trying to accommodate developers, whose construction sites occasionally serve as homes for this relative of the common garter snake.

The changes mean less protection for the snake in some parts of southeastern Wisconsin. But more significantly, the new policy is an example of the DNR and the Doyle administration trying to balance environmental protection and economic development.

In the case of the Butler’s, builders were complaining that the snake was an economic impediment, and there were moves afoot in the Legislature to remove restrictions on the snake. That prompted DNR to find a compromise.

The Butler’s garter snake is one of five garter snakes known to inhabit Wisconsin.

At 17 to 22 inches long, it’s known to congregate in massive numbers in places it likes. A survey of three islands on Lincoln Creek in the late 1990s in the city of Milwaukee found more than 1,200 Butler’s garter snakes, according to the DNR.

But its habitat is shrinking, and the population is declining and growing more fragmented.

Thus, the DNR declared the snake a threatened species in 1997. The designation has meant snakes in most cases can’t be killed. One challenge in protecting the snake is that it is the spitting image of the Eastern Plains garter snake. The two snakes are known to interbreed, producing a hybrid that is not protected.

Compounding the problem is the uniqueness of the Butler’s in Wisconsin. Genetic testing is under way at the University of Tennessee to determine whether Wisconsin’s Butler’s garter snake is distinct from the Butler’s in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario – its only other range. If tests prove the local Butler’s is genetically different, new restrictions might come back.

While the common garter snake can be found across the state, the Butler’s garter snake is confined to parts of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties.

“In Wisconsin, that happens to be the worst place to be,” said Bob Hay, a DNR herpetologist, because intensive development threatens the snake.

When it first became protected, the Butler’s was found in Kenosha and Racine counties, too. But development wiped out the snake there, Hay said.

Hay acknowledged that it’s sometimes difficult to find devotees of snakes.

“But from a biological perspective, we don’t believe that any of these species are here by accident,” he said. “They all play a role, even though we may not understand it, in the food chain.”

Old policy protected any site
Wisconsin’s old policy called for protecting any site where a Butler’s garter snake is located, but there were exceptions: After a 30-day public notice, the DNR since 1997 has allowed 32 instances where snakes were allowed to be killed.

The old way hobbled projects in New Berlin, South Milwaukee, Port Washington and Menomonee Falls as developers were forced to slow their work to comply with laws protecting endangered and threatened species.

Developers had to pay for studies to learn whether Butler’s garter snakes lived there. If the snakes were found, developers had to take protective measures such as adding snake-proof fences and adding buffer strips of land to give the snakes more room.

Some projects were delayed a year or more, said J. Scott Mathie, director of government affairs at the Metropolitan Builders Association of Greater Milwaukee.

“There were major hits to economic development,” Mathie said.

In Menomonee Falls, Carity’s Ravenswood subdivision, near W. Silver Spring Drive and Pilgrim Road, stood undeveloped until he was able to start selling lots last fall.

Twelve Butler’s garter snakes were discovered in 1999. Carity had to find one of only a handful of local herpetologists who could identify the snake. He spent an additional $25,000 in engineering and planning expenses. In the end, he idled about 6 acres of the 34-acre parcel for Butler’s habitat.

“If land values would not have appreciated as much as they have in the last four years, I would have been hurt financially,” Carity said.

Environmental triage
The DNR has collaborated with developers and environmentalists and settled on a form of environmental triage, where biologists will decide where the best habitat is located. And the DNR says it will try to evaluate a site in seven to 10 days.

The Butler’s habitat also is now being divided into three tiers, with only the third tier requiring developers to protect the snakes by changing construction plans, building buffers and erecting fences.

As companies apply for construction permits, endangered resource specialists will judge applications – perhaps visit a site – and determine whether the Butler’s garter snakes would thrive there.

The Ravenswood subdivision in Menomonee Falls would have been deemed marginal snake habitat, and Carity would not have been forced to jump through so many hoops.

“I think the tiered system will help,” Carity said. “I think that the DNR has gone out of its way to try to help developers in the process.”

As for the DNR, “we realized that some sites were more important than others,” said Andrew P. Galvin of the DNR’s Bureau of Endangered Resources. “We were getting involved and spending a lot of time on places that didn’t really have that much effect on the snakes.”

One site that is likely to be third-tier Butler’s habitat is in a northwest suburb of Milwaukee, where a developer is in the early stages of the permitting process for a commercial building. The Madison office of JJR, a landscape architecture, engineering and design company headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich., is working on permits for the building.

Mark Bergum, a civil engineer with JJR, said the best road design could fragment snake habitat. He said his firm is working with regulators to find a happy medium.

“I’m optimistic right now,” he said. “I think that we can work though these issues and improve the habitat for the snakes while improving access to the property.”

Mathie said his builders group backs the DNR plan for now. But even with the changes, Mathie has heard from one builder who still won’t be able to develop a parcel.

The DNR believes the snake can be saved if 65 sites with significant habitat can be found in southeastern Wisconsin; about 35 sites have been found.

Rare prairie reroutes development plans

Bill Carity has revised his development plan after discovering an unplowed virgin prairie in the middle of his proposed subdivision. “I do have a heart toward preserving this prairie,” he said.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Posted: July 30, 2003

Franklin – There is a joke among environmentalists in Franklin that some developers like to name their subdivisions after the natural resource they destroy.

You know, “Winding Creek This” or “Ancient Oaks That.”

And then there are folks such as Bill Carity, the Brookfield developer who has spent the past three months redrafting plans for a 70-acre Franklin subdivision in an effort to preserve one of the last remaining vestiges of Milwaukee County’s pre-settlement landscape.

That plan is in jeopardy now as a debate ensues over what’s more significant: a rare prairie remnant, overgrown with brush but never touched by the plow, or three wetlands.

In the end, the Franklin Common Council will decide whether Carity’s “Prairie Grass Preserve” rises or falls. But the debate raises questions about how environmental features are valued and inequities in the law that protect some land features at the expense of others.

“The irony is we have all sorts of regulations that protect the tiniest wetland, even if it’s seriously degraded. But you could have a really unusual, high-quality wood lot, or a prairie remnant, that’s afforded no legal protection at all,” said Jim Reinartz, a plant and wetland ecologist who directs the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s field station in the Town of Saukville.

“We’re lucky to have someone who is interested in working on this,” Reinartz said. “He could destroy that prairie tomorrow if he wanted to.”
Prairies covered landscape

There was a time in the 1800s when lush prairies and stately oak savannas dominated the landscape in southern Milwaukee County, south into Illinois and west to the Great Plains.

Tall grasses – so high one would have to sit on horseback to see over them – undulated in the Lake Michigan breezes. Their colors and textures, and the abundance of wildflowers in bloom, lent a drama to the landscape that is unseen today.

They were sustained by fire, natural and man-made, that blackened and warmed the earth, speeding the rebirth in spring of their deep-rooted plants, Reinartz said.

“Some of it was lightning, but most of the prairie fires in Wisconsin before European settlement were set by Native Americans to protect their settlement against wildfires and improve hunting,” he said.

By the turn of the 20th century, most of these fertile lands, among the richest in Wisconsin, gave way to farms. The fires ceased and the blade of the plow ripped through the roots.

By 1990, according to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, less than 1% of Milwaukee County’s prairies, a meager six acres, was known to exist. All of the oak savannas were gone.

UWM’s Reinartz was charting the wetlands on Carity’s site off St. Martins Road in May when he wandered into a secluded area, pocked with wetlands and thick with brush, and noticed something unexpected.

“I started to see these prairie plants – Shooting Star, and some of the grasses, like big and little blue stem and prairie cord grass,” Reinartz said.

“They were sort of scattered throughout an area where some invasive shrubs had taken over. And the more I saw . . . the more I suspected that this had never been plowed,” he said.

To be certain, Reinartz called in biologists Don Reed and Larry Leitner, who surveyed the plant community and studied the soil beneath. More than 40 prairie species were found in all. And beyond the presence of those plants, a cutaway of the soil showed no telltale shift in soil texture where the plow would have reached.

Reed and Leitner confirmed what Reinartz suspected. There, in the southwest corner of Carity’s planned subdivision, sat as much as 11 acres of virgin prairie.

“It was very exciting,” Reinartz said. “It’s a significant find.”
Environmental value

Bill Carity has been turning farmland into subdivisions in Waukesha County for 35 years. And like a growing number of developers, he’s figured out that preserving environmental features, such as dense woodlands and meandering creeks, often increases the value of his developments. So he’s learned to work around them.

But even Carity was unprepared for what Reinartz had found, or the response from scientists and environmentalists.

“These environmentalists down there, they think we’ve found the holy grail,” said Carity, who agreed to try to save the prairie, as long as he didn’t have to give up any of his lots.

So far, Carity estimates he’s spent about $50,000 in engineering and other costs to revise his plat. And he’s agreed to place the prairie in a land trust that can restore and manage it.

Carity’s most significant change has been to reroute one of the interior roads away from the prairie. But to do that, he has to fill a portion of one larger wetland; and fill all or part of two others, about a half-acre each in size and deemed of poor quality by the Franklin Environmental Commission and the state Department of Natural Resources.

Those groups, both proponents of strong wetland protections, support the move. The chance to save the rare prairie remnant, they say, outweighs the benefits of these isolated wetlands, so degraded they’ve lost much of their plant diversity and their value as groundwater filters and habitats for wildlife.

Heidi Hopkins, a water management specialist with the DNR, sees it as “a trade-off” her agency is willing to make.

“Do you preserve this nice prairie in an area of the state where they have steadily declined, or smaller, lower-quality wetlands that until a couple of years ago probably had row crops in them? I would argue the prairie is more valuable.”

But Franklin Planning Manager Mary Kay Buratto, who has tangled with the Environmental Commission since coming to the city in December, is opposed. She says Franklin’s newly toughened wetland ordinance, pushed by the commission over her objections, doesn’t differentiate by quality.

“My concern is, if we tell Mr. Carity he can fill in his wetlands, what’s to stop the next person from coming in, whether he has a prairie or not?” Buratto said. “The way I see the ordinance, he has two choices: get rid of four lots or go through the prairie.”

Carity said he’s uncertain how he would respond if handed that ultimatum. “What I’ve said is that I want to come out whole on this thing – it is a business after all,” he said. “But I do have a heart toward preserving this prairie.”
Prairie vs. wetlands

It’s hard to overstate the social and ecological values of a wetland. But making a case for a patch of prairie – too small to serve as any significant wildlife habitat and on prime land for agriculture or development – is much tougher, according to Reinartz and others.

They see the remnants as priceless because of their link to Wisconsin’s natural past, their contribution to the Earth’s diversity and the secrets they may hold as an unstudied ecosystem.

“We’ve never had the opportunity to really research all of the functions of these plants, how they process chemicals or fight off pests” Reed said. “Until you can build that library, you don’t really know what potential they might have for medicines or products in the future to help mankind.”

That’s why it’s so important to preserve these “little postage stamp habitats,” he said, “whether they be prairie or wetland or any other kind of native plant community.”

To not try is to usher in their extinction, the prairie advocates say. It’s a fate unthinkable for some species, from whooping cranes to the red colobus monkey, and completely disregarded for others.

“People don’t understand the significance of plant life extinction, unless it’s something like the sequoias,” Reed said.

“You can make a case for the redwoods in California. But how do you make a case for shooting stars in Franklin, Wisconsin?”

It’s a question that may soon have an answer: The city plan commission is expected to take up the matter in August.