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Lawmakers preparing bill for The Couture

The Couture (Rendering courtesy of Barrett Visionary and Rinka Chung Architecture Inc.)

By Molly Willms

Two state lawmakers plan to begin seeking sponsors Thursday for a bill that would reassert that the site for The Couture, a high-rise building proposed for downtown Milwaukee, is not public land and is available for private development.

State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, said he and state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, will co-sponsor the bill, which he said is meant to give more legal strength to the argument that private development at 909 E. Michigan St., Milwaukee, is legal. The Milwaukee County-owned downtown Transit Center is on the property.

Sanfelippo said the bill would add context to a state budget provision that designated the land as eligible for private development, and assert the Legislature’s authority to determine boundaries that define land that must be free and open to the public.

Sanfelippo would not provide copies of the bill before Thursday.

“Our concern here,” he said, “is that we know we’re right, and we know we have the authority to say this is where the boundary is.”

But Milwaukee County Supervisors Pat Jursik and Gerry Broderick disagree that the Legislature has such authority. Both said Wednesday that they will not agree to sell the property until a judge weighs in on the status of the land.

“It’s an issue of fact,” Jursik said. “The policymaking branch of government, the second branch of government, does not address that. You address that in a courtroom.”

Preserve Our Parks, a nonprofit organization, has insisted the status of the land is such that it would be illegal to build The Couture on the downtown property. The group has used an 1884 map to argue the land could not be used for private development because two-thirds of the property is filled-in lakebed.

If the transit center land is filled-in lakebed, the Wisconsin Constitution’s Public Trust Doctrine would not allow The Couture to be built there, because free access to public waterways must be maintained.

Charlie Kamps, a board member with Preserve Our Parks, said Wednesday if the county tried to sell the whole property for private development, his group would take legal action.

Still, the county in July 2012 announced plans to work with developer Rick Barrett on The Couture.

But the Public Trust Doctrine uncertainty has prevented the county from obtaining the title insurance it needs before selling the land to Barrett, Jursik said.

She and Broderick introduced a resolution Tuesday that would direct the county’s corporation counsel and Milwaukee-based Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren SC, a private law firm that has been working with the county on questions surrounding The Couture site, to file for declaratory judgment to determine whether the land is subject to the doctrine.

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors gave the attorneys similar power in February, but state legislators stepped in and added a measure to the 2013-2015 state budget that stated the Milwaukee County property was not subject to the doctrine.

Sanfelippo said the bill would strengthen the state’s legal standing to back up its claims and end any lawsuit over land use more quickly.

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