Access to the founding segment of Waupaca’s River Ridge Trail will be terminated, and plans to build an educational center in the Oz Natural Area are on hold.
Late last week, Kari Esbensen and Russ Butkiewicz delivered notice to City Attorney John Hart that they are rescinding access to the portion of the trail that is on their property.
“We made the decision to draw attention to the natural area, to bring back to focus our intent of why we donated it,” said Esbensen.
As part of the non-binding agreement they and other property owners have with the city, they may terminate access with a 60-day notice.
“The city hopes to come to a resolution that works between all parties prior to the 60-day timeline,” said Parks and Recreation Director Aaron Jenson.
In addition, the city has made no decision about building an educational center in the Oz Natural Area.
“We are re-evaluating everything,” Jenson said. “Russ and Kari have a vision that does not include an educational center on the property. Because of that, we want to look at all possible options.”
Origins of trail, Oz park
In the late 1990s, the couple donated the 22 acres that became the Oz Natural Area to the Waupaca Parks Foundation, with the intent that it be transferred to the city.
The 22 acres were part of a 34-acre parcel they owned.
After they donated the 22 acres to the city, the couple retained ownership of the remaining parcel, which is nearly 13 acres.
The Oz Natural Area is located on the corner of County Trunk K and Constance Road, which means their property abuts the park.
When Esbensen and Butkiewicz donated thei land, their primary focus was to protect the biological diversity of the site, Esbensen said.
She said they also sought to provide low-impact educational opportunities and to maintain the site’s scenic beauty.
Restrictive covenants outlined their goals.
Development and improvements on the property were limited to interpretive signs, a wetland boardwalk, restroom facilities, a parking area, an amphitheater, shelter, the trail system which was granted indefinite access, benches and other items approved by the Management Committee consistent with ecological and environmental educational purposes.
Esbensen said the intention of including the words “natural area” in the name of the park was because they “never wanted it to become a place with grills, a playground.”
She served on the founding board of directors for the Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust, which focused on managing areas people wanted to donate and protect.
In addition, Esbensen was the chair of the Waupaca Tree Advisory Committee and employed in Portage County’s UW-Extension office as its community, natural resources and economic development agent at the time she and her husband bought the property on the city limits.
While working in Stevens Point, she worked with the former dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, who was part of establishing the Green Circle Trail there.
Esbensen approached the Waupaca Tree Advisory Committee with the idea of starting a similar trail here.
“That is how the River Ridge Trail evolved,” she said.
When the couple bought their property, with its hills, large oak trees and marsh, they always thought it should be protected, she said.
They immediately saw the potential of allowing the trail to go through their property, making it an example for others in the community, Esbensen said.
“Ours was the founding segment to the trail,” she said. “Gusmer Enterprises was the second to give access to property for the trail.”
Through partnerships between the city and private landowners, the first loop of the trail was created, Esbensen said.
CAP proposes education center
Approximately two years ago, Clif Morton, of the CAP Services Fresh Start Program, contacted the city with the idea of creating an eco-friendly park in the city.
Initially, he met with Brennan Kane, the city’s development director, to talk about possibly doing the project by the East Gate Subdivision, Jenson said.
Morton’s idea included the construction of a center to be used for educational purposes regarding sustainable practices, Jenson said.
“We talked about it. As we found out more about what Clif was trying to do, we brought forward to consider the Oz Natural Area, believing it would be a good fit,” he said.
At the Oz Natural Area, both passive users and classes from area schools could visit the center, he said.
“That was the idea behind it. When we were approached as a city, it was something attractive to us, because the agreement was all fundraising would be done through CAP. No city tax dollars would be used in the project. On top of that, CAP agreed to maintain all improvements,” Jenson said.
The understanding also included a review every five years.
Jenson said not only would no city tax dollars go into the project, but the CAP Services Fresh Start crew would construct.
CAP Services is located across the road from the Oz Natural Area.
Esbensen and Butkiewicz are members of the Oz Property Ad Hoc Committee, and the proposal went before that group in November 2013.
Environmental impact study urged
“There was a proposal to put up a building. We had concerns about that. What impact is that going to have on the land, the natural beauty of the land, the critters living there,” Butkiewicz said.
He said they are supportive of the idea of green buildings but are concerned about how buildings could impact the environment, particularly the migration of smaller amphibians, including the blue spotted salamander, wood frogs and turtles.
“We are still learning, too,” Butkiewicz said. “That’s why we’re saying before anything happens, we need to back up and do some type of environmental study about what’s best for the land and its inhabitants.”
Protecting the animals living there needs to be balanced with potential uses for the community, he said.
“For the most part, we’ve been happy with the use,” Esbensen said.
They see people hiking on the trail and Waupaca Foundry employees walking there for their lunch break. Children in the Head Start program visit the park.
An environmental impact study could involve high school students.
“We would like to provide two $500 stipends for two high school students who have an interest in pursuing that in college,” she said.
She said the city and CAP Services should be sure there will be interested users for an educational center before one is constructed, and anything should be built with sensitivity to the environment.
An open air shelter is in the process of being constructed in the natural area.
In January, the ad hoc committee recommended approval to begin construction of an educational center at a location just west of the parking lot, Jenson said.
In early April, the common council approved a Memo of Understanding with CAP Services.
“After that, Kari and Russ brought forward a suggested secondary location they wanted to explore, south of the original location,” Jenson said. “We thought that was definitely worth considering and looking into, so we held a meeting to discuss and vote on which location we wanted it constructed at.”
On April 29, the committee voted in favor of the alternate location.
“There were definite benefits. Greater visibility from K, a higher elevation there so better a viewpoint over the wetland, Jenson said. “The solar capability was the same as the north location.”
After that meeting, the city began receiving emails, letters and phone calls from people opposed to building the center at all in the park, he said.
Butkiewicz said the original plan was to first build the open air shelter and see how much it was used before constructing an educational center.
Jenson explained why that idea changed.
“Clif and CAP Services has done a great job of raising funds for this project and securing grant dollars in excess of $200,000 for the project,” he said. “I will say in all fairness that they were able to secure that funding fairly quickly, and I think that is what moved the discussion so fast from the open air shelter to the educational center.”
Esbensen said they support the Fresh Start program and believe in their work.
A Fresh Start crew already assisted last year in pulling an invasive species out of the natural area, something they appreciate, she said.
“We applaud all the good work they do but believe the space is wrong to accomplish it,” Esbensen said of the plans for an educational center in the Oz Natural Area. “What we had in mind for the area is what is there.”
The city is sensitive to their feelings, and alternative locations are being considered.
“I don’t want to lose all the positives that would come out of this project, whether’s it’s the Oz Natural Area or an area to be determined,” Jenson said.
In addition to the funds raised for the project, CAP Services would provide the labor for the project and educational materials to be used by area school districts, he said. “I hope that those positives don’t get lost in some of the differences of opinion.”
Esbensen and Butkiewicz are also hoping for a positive outcome.
He wants a “good outcome for the land and its inhabitants, a good outcome for the community and a good outcome that respects our rights as the donors.”