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Standing at the edge of his no-name lake, his thin canvas zip-front jacket draped on a tree, it’s easy to see Royse Myers as a folksy, grandfather-like custodian of .
Put a picket sign in his hand, as he did when Wal-Mart came courting, and the picture changes to more of a militant in a Mr. Rogers sweater.
“I’m not happy with what’s happening in the world,” Myers, 81, said. “People bulldoze everything in sight. They cut trees down faster than I can replace them. It’s my way more than anything of saying, ‘I’m going to fight you as best I can with my limited resources and my limited property.”
Taking A Stance On Land Use
That property spans more than 220 acres, an area more than a mile square, bound not only by its contiguous placement on a map but also by a system of conservation easements, which prevent development on all but a thin sliver of land around the Myers’ home.
Unlike some protected lands, the collective acreage is not a public park; for nearly 25 years, Myers and his wife, Barbara, have lived quietly, raising three children and welcoming seven grandchildren to the remodeled home at the end of their remote, gated and camera-guarded driveway.
“Basically, we’re just telling the world to stay away,” Myers said.
He’s protective because his land is a place where ducks and geese carry in fish eggs on their feet, naturally restocking a 30-acre lake carved from a once-abandoned quarry.
It’s a place where Myers has planted an estimated 25,000 trees.
And, with legal protections that ban development on the property, it’s a place that instantly springs to mind in the local debate about green space in Caledonia.
“There’s a running battle, I guess, between generating money for the village and protecting the environment,” Myers said. “And the two seem to be not compatible at all times. We’re trying to live in harmony with the village and pay our fair share.”
And he wants to pay his fair share.
Before he sold it in 1999, Myers ran a 300-employee company that made industrial coolers. As a business man, he understands the growing divide between the services a community provides and the community’s ability to pay for those services.
“If you fly from Chicago to Milwaukee, Caledonia is the only remaining green space of any significance. We’re trying to preserve that,” Myers said.
“Unfortunately, that minimizes the amount of tax money available to the village. And they’re unfortunately fighting the budget all the time and looking for ways to make money.”
That doesn’t mean the Myers were exactly apologetic when they asked the village to assess their land based on what they see as its true value, not the potential buildable value traditionally used to gauge property taxes.
“Our family has given up a lot of money by getting the conservation easements,” Barbara Myers, 80, said. “Is the village losing anything? No, I don’t think so.
Especially since they have given up building rights on all but two of their 230 acres -- a kind of insurance policy to make sure the land could one day be sold, since Royse and Barbara are sure their children won’t be able to keep the property once they are gone.
Even with a hard won , Myers said, “they could never afford the taxes.” Myers said.
So, on two acres – and those two acres alone – a new owner could remodel the house or build a new one, even McMansion.
Myers shuddered at the thought. But it’s a risk worth taking if the property is preserved.
“This is our legacy,” he said.
Preserving Caledonia's Rural Character
Barbara and Royse are not alone in wanting to in Caledonia.
Sandy DeWalt, a board member of the Caledonia Conservancy, absolutely believes the community wins when people place conservation easements on their land. It’s a principle that has led the conservancy to acquire about 170 acres in the village with plans to add another 20 within the next couple of months.
“All our land is open to the public from dawn to dusk. When there is very little money, we provide places for people to go at no cost,” she said.
“Yes, we’re taking things off the tax rolls,” DeWalt said. “But we’re providing function for the community in forms of walking trails, riding trails, cross-country skiing. I understand we need development. I pay taxes. I live in Caledonia. But it’s keeping the development where things are already developed.”
“I think that what Royse and Barbara are doing is admirable,” DeWalt said. “They have preserved land and are trying to put back what was lost. Royse is reforesting the area and bringing it back to as close to the natural state as he can. If we had more Royses around, I think we could have the best of both worlds.”
Taking The Land Out Of The Loop For Business
Village President Ron Coutts isn’t quite as unabashedly enthusiastic about green space conservation, although he acknowledged that such protections have been and continue to be important to the character of Caledonia.
“At one time, yes, I was a big supporter,” Coutts said. “But, right now, we’ve got enough land set aside. How much more do you want? How much more land do we take off the tax rolls?”
“It’s tough in Caledonia,” he added. “I’ve put 20 budgets together in my time on the board. This one was the toughest to find money to keep our head above water. We almost had to cut out paint for striping the roads. We need these Wal-Marts, whether you like them or not. We need them. We need development. If we don’t see development taking place, I think we’ll be in a world of hurt.”
Coutts said he feels many local land conservationists don’t appreciate that big picture, which means that, at least for now, their goals might be mutually exclusive.
“When I see a developer come for Caledonia, my arms will be open. I’ll fight the Conservancy,” Coutts said. “It would be nice to work together, but I don’t think that will happen.”
Royse and Barbara don’t expect the debate to blow over any time soon. They even understand that issues of financial solvency in the village might, for many people, trump any dreams of land preservation.
For now, they are comforted knowing they have done what they can -- and will continue to do as long as their resources hold out.
“This is our legacy,” Royse Myers said. “Something people can remember us by.”
“It makes you feel like you’re leaving something good after you’re gone,” Barbara added. “We hope other people will do what they can.”