UPDATE: The Caledonia Conservancy has tentatively received about $130,000 from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Grant, which is funded by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and private businesses and citizens. Fran Martin, president for the group, said the money would be used to purchases 15.3 acres of land on Short Road and Five Mile Road from Karen "Henni" Keland.
The Village Board can adopt or reject the grant. However, they have already issued a letter of support for the project. One of the concerns the Village Board had was that the property would be removed from the tax roll and the Village would lose the tax money. However, Martin said the amount they would lose would amount to about 15 percent of $600.
ORIGINAL STORY: The Caledonia Conservancy is looking to buy and preserve more undeveloped land and that has some Village Board members unhappy.
The nonprofit is looking to buy 14 acres of land on Short Road just north of Five Mile Road from Karen Henrietta Keland. To help buy the land, the Conservancy is seeking a Knowles-Nelson grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to pay for half of the cost of the property.
The group needed a letter of support from the Village Board for the grant application, which it has received. But the approval process revealed concerns among some Village Board members over the Conservancy's efforts, which removes lands from Caledonia's property tax base.
When the Conservancy purchases a property it becomes undevelopable and therefore is no longer taxable, but only if it was developable in the first place. Some of the property they’ve acquired was not developable and was not taxed. The Short Road property generates about $670 per year in property taxes.
According to 2009 tax documents on the Conservancy website, the non-profit group owns land valued at $1.4 million, which is not subject to state or federal taxes. But it is land subject to county, municipal, Racine Unified, and Gateway taxes.
Fran Martin, president of the Caledonia Conservancy, said "property values are entered in the Caledonia Conservancy books at the value as of the date of transfer, which may or may not be currently correct."
The purpose of the nonprofit is to “preserve the rural character of the Village.” They acquire land through purchases, land easement agreements, and grants.
Village Board member Kevin Wanggaard took issue with the loss of tax base with this most recent request.
“Right now we’re looking at a loss of tax base, and even though this is a small amount – those small numbers add up,” Wanggaard said.
However, Martin pointed to the expansion of Caledonia’s recreational area and said the maintenance of the trails is managed by the Conservancy at no cost to the village.
But there is a cost when tax revenues aren’t coming into the village and other taxing entities, Wanggaard argued. His concern is part of a wider review of the village, which is studying tax-exempt status of all property within Caledonia.
He also took issue with the Conservancy's claims that the trails are accessible to the public. Some trails are not entirely open to the public, and one trail had a no trespassing sign on it, Wanggaard said.
Sandy DeWalt, of the Conservancy, said the no trespassing sign was put up by the County years ago and that they intended to take it down. Martin said all of the trails are open to the public.
“These grants are being received on trails that are public trails, but they are trails the public doesn’t have to be let on to,” Wanggaard said.
This is somewhat, but not entirely, true, Martin said.
In an email, Martin explained:
“We acquire trail properties as they become available, some by donation, some by purchase, some by purchase via the Knowles-Nelson fund. The Conservancy properties are all open to the public, and are all (except for one small portion near the trout ponds prairie) accessible to the public without crossing private land. Some, though, connect to trails on private property, and the private property landowners graciously allow public equestrian use, but not, typically, other uses. (H)owever, that would be at the discretion of the landowners.”
Martin said the property the Conservancy is looking to purchase would give public access to a trail the Conservancy now owns.
During Village Board debate on the issue, Village Engineer Mike Hayek reminded board members that the Conservancy’s request was in line with the village’s land-use plan.
The board voted to grant the Conservancy’s request.