n aerial view of a field with a clear blue lake in the background. The field is light brown with a few green patches, and there are trees along the edge closest to the lake.

Taking a big chance to secure a bright future: Groundswell Conservancy + Town of Westport

Partnership is proof that big dreams and the tenacity to achieve them pays off.

Tucked neatly between the Town of Westport’s town hall and WI Department of Natural Resources’ Six Mile Creek Fishery Area is 105 acres of open grasslands, wetlands, and oak woods. Once commercially zoned and slated for development of a bagel bakery, the property found itself a different destiny.

Groundswell Conservancy, a Dane County-based land trust, had long had this property on their radar for the ecological value of its wetland-rich landscape and proximity to Lake Mendota. Of course, project-ready commercially-zoned real estate typically comes with a steep price tag. “We crossed it off the Lake Mendota plan because we thought it would be out of reach,” admitted Mike Foy, who is part of Groundswell’s land protection team, in a Wisconsin State Journal article.

Groundswell’s mission statement cuts right to the chase: We protect special places, forever. So when the land went up for sale, the path forward was obvious. Groundswell Conservancy and the Town of Westport forged a partnership, working together to secure funding to ensure this special place would be protected for the Westport community, forever. A generous donation from nearby residents, boosted by a $1 million grant from Dane County and a $2 million commitment from the town itself, allowed the town to move forward in making a down payment. However, fundraising efforts were far from over to cover the full cost of the $6 million purchase.

When Westport turned to the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program for help in securing additional funds, the DNR laid out two options for town officials to consider: Apply for a grant in the amount of $249,999 and be guaranteed the money, or move forward in requesting the full amount they sought – $812,000 – but risk possible delays in the approval process or face an outright denial.

Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program grant requests over $250,000 are subject to passive review by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. Any committee member can raise an anonymous objection to a request for any reason, which could lead to a denial, an indefinite hold, or the award of a lesser amount.

The town ultimately opted to apply for the full $812,000, which they were approved for with no objections. “We gave [the option of a lesser grant] a little bit of thought and said, ‘No, no, that’s not right. … We’ll stick with you and let’s get what we deserve’,” said Westport’s current town administrator and former town chair, Dean Grosskopf in a Cap Times article. “A lot of people, probably with less resources or less tenacity, I don’t know, in some of these smaller projects will say, ‘I’ll just take the $250k and call it a day’,” he continued.

The town granted Groundswell a conservation easement, guaranteeing its permanent preservation and continued public access for future generations. “The grant funding received up until this point adds additional protections to the land, making future attempts to repurpose the property much more challenging,” said Grosskopf in a Waunakee Tribune article.

The town plans to maintain the existing soccer fields while keeping the rest of the land undeveloped, which will provide wildlife and pollinator habitat, protect wetlands and reduce stormwater runoff to improve Lake Mendota water quality. An existing trail already connects the property to nearby DNR land and Westport’s Town Center, and a dedicated bike and pedestrian path is on the horizon, further connecting the area to other public lands in Dane County. This property completes a nearly unbroken corridor of protected public land around the north side of Lake Mendota, including Governor Nelson State Park.

“For the 30 years I’ve been associated with the town, I’ve often looked out the window of the Board Room and thought how wonderful it would be if we could protect that land,” said Grosskopf.  Thanks to a powerful partnership and a bold vision, that thought is now a reality.

Featured images by Ben Jones/Groundswell Conservancy.

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