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Land swap between Northwestern Mutual and county nears completion in Oak Creek

May 23, 2012

A long-planned Oak Creek land swap involving Milwaukee County and Northwestern Mutual is likely to be completed by late September, said Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black.

"It's made it through the County Board," said Black, who noted the prospect has involved more than five years of work, "at least," to this point.

Under the plan, the county would convey to Northwestern Mutual 60 acres at the northwest corner of Drexel Avenue and Interstate 94. Northwestern Mutual would, in turn, transfer to the county 105 acres on the south side of Drexel - a band of land that stretches south between 20th Street and I-94.

"We're trading out some property that doesn't have the natural-area elements like what we're getting," she added. "We're very excited."

'One-of-a-kind' opportunity

The land the county is getting is special, Black said, because it's "a one-of-a-kind natural area" in an urban setting.

The county may seek to have the state designate it as a state natural area, which would offer further protections, she said.

Jim Ritchie, a grant program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the property the county is receiving is known as the Esch-Honadel Woods, which he described as "pristine woodlands and very high-quality life habitat."

Though it is privately owned, "the really exceptional thing about it is that it's (been) undisturbed for a long, long time."

The woodland is made up of 10 parcels, and only a portion of it is actually owned by Northwestern Mutual, said Kevin Kennedy, director in real estate investment for Northwestern Mutual.

Kennedy said the company has contracts to purchase the pieces owned by other parties that stipulate it must be used for parkland. In a sense, the company is collecting the pieces to convey them to the county.

What company is getting

The 70-acre property north of Drexel that Northwestern Mutual is receiving is grassland that was formerly farmed, said Ritchie.

No money is involved in the trade, Black and Kennedy said. Because the 70-acre parcel now owned by the county was purchased at least partially with federal funds, issued in the 1970s to augment Falk Park, the transfer of the property must adhere to certain rules, Ritchie said.

It must be traded for acreage that is at least equal to the acreage it holds; it must not exceed the assessed value of the property traded for; and it must have at least the same recreational utility, he said.

The DNR is now reviewing that it meets those standards, Ritchie said.

It was the county approached the financial services firm about the swap, said Northwestern Mutual spokesman Mark Lucius.

Kennedy and Lucius said the company does not have a plan at this time for the property. Kennedy said future development is possible, noting the property is highly visible from I-94. Ramps under construction at Drexel and I-94 will make it easily accessible from the freeway.

Northwestern Mutual has a campus in Franklin, at the northwest corner of Drexel and 27th Street. It also owns 120 acres of undeveloped land on the east side of 27th Street in Oak Creek. The land is separated slighty from the property it would receive by parts of Falk Park.

Lucius and Kennedy said any development of the new property would not be an expansion of Northwestern Mutual's Franklin operations.

The city of Oak Creek is a minor player in the land swap, as some land it owns will also be conveyed to the county.

"The big picture is that property most suitable for development will end up in Northwestern Mutual's hands, and the property most suitable … for environment will end up in the county's hands," said City Administrator Gerald Peterson.

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