Glendale - After a decade of public hearings, lawsuits and political maneuvers, it appears the decision to remove or repair the Estabrook Dam no longer rests with the Milwaukee County Board.
Last week, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Director Kevin Shafer announced their plan to circumvent the county board to remove the Estabrook Dam.
The dam is located in the city of Milwaukee, so Milwaukee officials would rezone that area of Estabrook Park to a non-park use. By rezoning the property, the dam would be taken out of the jurisdiction of the county board and into the hands of a three-person panel comprised of Abele, Milwaukee County Comptroller Scott Manske and a representative from the city of Milwaukee.
At least two members of that panel would have to vote in favor of selling that land for $1 to MMSD, which would then demolish the dam. The parcel around the dam would be transferred back to the city and rezoned as parkland. The removal of the dam is estimated to cost $1.7 million.
In a letter, city, county and MMSD officials say removing the Estabrook Dam is less expensive and restores the river to a natural, free-flowing state. They say the maneuver was necessary because the Milwaukee County Board has not taken a "transparent vote" since the cost estimates of repairing the dam have increased to $4.1 million, which is $600,000 more than the county budgeted for the project
Abele has long advocated for the removal of the dam, butting heads with Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb, of Glendale, who has advocated for its repair. Lipscomb called Abele's maneuver "undemocratic."
“Once again, Chris Abele has cooked up a clandestine end-run around the legislative branch just to get his way," Lipscomb said in a statement. "On its face, this is undemocratic: it substitutes an unelected body (MMSD) and political appointees in place of citizens’ elected representatives."
The move also caught the interest of Glendale residents and elected officials, since nearly all of the properties affected by the dam are in Glendale. Some homeowners on the river have expressed concern that riverfront property values will drop along with the water levels in the river, leaving them with a dock to nowhere.
Just as the shoreline was restored after the removal of the North Avenue Dam, Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy said the county or MMSD should identify affected properties and find funds to restore the shoreline properties from the dam to Bender Road. Kennedy said he has been told that ample funds will be available for shoreline restoration for the removal of the Estabrook Dam, but he wanted to make the city's position clear by adopting a resolution.
The rest of the Glendale Common Council agreed with Kennedy, and agreed to send a resolution to county officials stating their position.
The move by Barrett, Abele and Shafer was supported unanimously on Oct. 10 by the Milwaukee County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council, which is comprised of the top elected officials from all 19 Milwaukee County communities. Kennedy abstained from the vote, as the Glendale Common Council has chosen to remain neutral in the debate.
The announcement was also supported by nonprofit Milwaukee Riverkeeper, which has long advocated for the dam's removal.
“Today’s announcement marks a turning point in an almost decade-long effort to remove the Estabrook Dam and help restore the health of the Milwaukee River. The decision rightly gives the government agency responsible for providing flood management services to the area, the ability to actually manage and minimize flood risk in the area," the organization said in a statement. "This is especially important for the 50 properties located in the flood plain upstream of Estabrook Dam, which are at an increased risk for flooding and could hold the owner of the Estabrook Dam liable if it’s not properly managed during a large rain event.”
The Milwaukee Common Council, Shorewood Village Board and MMSD Commission have previously passed resolutions in support of dam removal.