An environmental group is decrying an exemption written into Gov. Scott Walker's regulatory reform proposal that would give special treatment to a project in Ashwaubenon that would fill in about 2 acres of wetlands.
Becky Abel, executive director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, said she believes the measure is targeted toward a project proposed by John Bergstrom of Neenah, who owns numerous car dealerships in Wisconsin. Bergstrom's attorney, Paul Kent, confirmed that a possible tenant for the 21-acre retail project is a Bass Pro Shops store.
But Abel said the measure is written such that it could affect locations beyond the site at Highway 41 and Lombardi Avenue.
"The way it's written now, it appears to apply to every wetland in Brown County, both federal and nonfederal, of less than 3 acres in size," she said.
At the request of Abel's group, former DNR Secretary Matt Frank agreed in September to submit the matter to an administrative law judge for a court-like hearing. Parties can appeal those rulings in court.
But Walker's proposal would appear to short-circuit that process, which can take several months to more than a year, said Bruce Baker, acting water division administrator. Under the governor's proposal, "The project would be deemed to be in compliance with the law, and that would be it," Baker said.
Abel said the measure would appear to remove — at least in Brown County — an important check the public has on proposals to develop wetlands, which filter water, provide habitat for wildlife and retain storm water. Her group's challenge to the permit charges that DNR approved it without requiring Bergstrom to follow all of the wetlands regulations.
Baker said the agency OK'd the permit after months of negotiations that resulted in impacts to just 1.6 acres of wetlands, installation of storm water management and improvement and restricting development on other wetlands on the site.
Said Kent: "Here is a case where the developer worked with DNR for a period of months — almost a year — and tried to do everything right. Having gone through all of that and gotten DNR to sign off — and that's not an easy thing — the challenge came in that said, ‘That's not good enough.' "
The measure is part of a series of bills Walker has proposed to spur business growth. Bergstrom and his wife donated $3,727 to the governor's campaign, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign records, which show a history of donations from Bergstrom to both Democrats and Republicans.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie defended the governor's proposal, saying it would "generate hundreds of jobs." He said the permit was OK'd by the DNR "because of the potential to enhance surrounding wetlands."