For years, Wauwatosa residents and visitors have gravitated to the hush of 50-plus acres of greenspace fondly called Sanctuary Woods. It falls within the Milwaukee County Grounds, the largest remaining open space in the county.
Over recent years, sections, especially along its southern and western stretches, have given way to development.
As Wauwatosa leaders began drafting a master plan for the district, some residents worried Sanctuary Woods might be swallowed by development.
Mayor Kathy Ehley has repeatedly maintained that Wauwatosa could balance both commerce and conservation. Here she spoke at a public meeting in 2017:
"It is my belief that at the end of this planning process, we will have a plan that balances environmental preservation with economic growth opportunities; a plan that provides a framework to both protect and conserve beloved greenspace as well as provide opportunities and guide decisions that foster economic development, job creation and added values."
What followed was months of debate. Advocates keen on preserving the green space pointed out the richness of its habitat.
Field biologist Gary Casper can attest to its biodiversity. He happened to spend three years exploring Sanctuary Woods as part of a bigger project the EPA asked him to undertake – how wildlife species were fairing in northern Milwaukee County.
Casper says he was astounded with what he and fellow biologists discovered in the more than 50-acre parcel.
“Last year, we finally found tree frogs and if you like I can show you the secret roost where the long-eared owls sleep during the day. So, long-eared owls are a species of greatest conservation need in our state and there’s not a lot known about them, but they do hunt at night like most owls and then during the day they find these roosts where they’re protected from predators,” Casper says.
Other finds have included flying squirrels and the rare, endangered rusty patched bumblebee.
Ultimately, the future of Sanctuary Woods and the life within it rests with the Wauwatosa Common Council.
In November, conservation advocates filed into the Wauwatosa council chambers for yet another public hearing. This one on rezoning the land. Every person who testified asked elected officials to vote to rezone the parcel for conservation.
Jonathan Piel says he’s one of a throng of residents ready to roll up their sleeves to steward Sanctuary Woods.
"In the last two months, we’ve had 200 people on tours of Sanctuary Woods both for the natural elements of it and the historical elements of it. In the last eight months, we’ve [had] three buckthorn remediations where Sanctuary Woods overlaps County Grounds Park and we have a list of people ready to be part of a friends of Milwaukee County parks group to be good stewards of the land," Piel says. "We have a website already active outlining that space ... it receives 1,000 visits per month."
Then, on Tuesday night, several dozen residents showed up to witness what they hoped would be a vote securing conservation zoning for Sanctuary Woods.
Piel was among them. He almost seemed to skip across the room as he delivered slips of paper to everyone in the room — including aldermen — inviting them to celebrate at the nearby Tosa Bowl & Bun.
Advocates broke into spontaneous applause when the full council approved the zoning measure. Barb Agnew was in the crowd. She’s long advocated for every inch of green space she lays her eyes on within the historic county grounds.
Agnew calls the zoning vote a Herculean accomplishment. But she says next, it’s essential to protect the woods from the impacts of potential surrounding development. That means monitoring the details of a 147-unit apartment building slated to rise just south of the woods.
"What we’re seeing so far is a lot of glass windows, which are of grave concern to the birds. We’ve got to make sure that it’s environmentally sensitive in relationship to where it is, so the lighting and the landscape and the height," Agnew says. "All of those things have to be taken into consideration on how it will impact the Sanctuary Woods."
During the Tuesday evening meeting, Alderperson Nancy Welch urged the full council to push for protective measures as new building projects are considered.
The proposed apartment complex will be the subject of a Wauwatosa public hearing on Dec. 17.