Kenosha County communities square off over I-94 land

Real Estate

Amazon fulfillment Kenosha's is one of the companies that has located along I-94 in Kenosha County.

There is a 3.8-square-mile parcel along I-94 in Kenosha County that has prompted a lawsuit among three municipalities.

It started with what some are calling a covert intergovernmental agreement April 7 between the Village of Somers and the Town of Paris that transferred the land from the town to the village.

The municipalities, located north of Highway K to the Racine County line, straddle the interstate. Somers has about 2,000 acres on the east; Paris has about 2,500 acres on the west.

Officials from both communities believe they could generate $500 million in commercial development over the next 20 years on the west side of the interstate and even more on the east.

“We will have some development on the Somers side, north of (Highway) 142 in the very near future,” said David Geertsen, a trustee in the Village of Somers and the director of finance for Kenosha County.

Geertsen would not say who interested developers are, but said there is “significant interest” coming from Illinois.

“It’s not just a continuation of what is happening in Pleasant Prairie,” Geertsen said of the newly-formed agreement between Somers and Paris. “This is a very important step for the economic development of this portion of the I-94 corridor. We want to work together to optimize that.”

Kenosha County Executive Jim Kreuser, who has been meeting with Somers and Paris officials for more than a year to help orchestrate this agreement, says future development there could become “Pleasant Prairie light.”

Kenosha County, and Pleasant Prairie in particular, has reaped the benefits of Illinois companies relocating recently. Pleasant Prairie has attracted numerous businesses to move from Illinois to LakeView Corporate Park.

In 2010, Uline moved its headquarters from Illinois to Pleasant Prairie, west of I-94, and has been rapidly expanding since. The company this year finished a second 1.1 million-square-foot distribution center at its corporate headquarters campus in Pleasant Prairie, and also is building a new 298,000-square-foot office building on the campus. The company also plans to build a 60,000-square-foot office building and a 1 million-square-foot distribution center on another site at Higheay 142 and I-94 in Kenosha.

Seattle-based Inc. built a $250 million distribution center on 165 acres just east of the interstate in Kenosha in 2013, hiring more than 1,000 people.

Somers and Paris officials want to attract development to their communities as well. But not everyone views the new partnership between them as a positive step forward for Kenosha County. First, the city of Kenosha was left out of the discussion, which made outgoing Mayor Keith Bosman and incoming Mayor John Antaramian upset.

A lawsuit was filed in April against the Village of Somers by the city of Kenosha and two homeowners living in Paris, who believe the value of their properties will drop significantly, since they no longer have the option of being annexed into the city. The group also alleges various violations of the state open meetings law.

Mars Cheese Castle, which would be located in Somers under the deal, recently joined the suit and filed a separate lawsuit against the Town of Paris, said J. Michael McTernan, the Kenosha attorney representing the group.

Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder has granted a temporary injunction preventing Somers from annexing the Paris properties. As of right now, no municipal boundaries are actually changing.

Approximately 120 residents live in the affected area of Paris. On April 29, McTernan filed a petition with more than 75 signatures from Paris residents asking that a referendum be held regarding the intergovernmental agreement.

He does not believe the agreement will stand.

“I don’t know of a large scale developer who would want to come here to get into the middle of a fight between three municipalities and try to develop in the middle of all this,” McTernan said.

Kreuser disagrees, saying the land is currently worth about $30 million and has the potential to be worth $500 million.

If the injunction is lifted and the intergovernmental agreement moves forward, Paris will pay the village $1.25 million this year and would also provide a revolving loan fund valued at $5 million to Somers, at a rate of 2.6 percent.  Revenue generated from development within the area would be split evenly between Paris and Somers, Geertsen said.

“We want rooftops built with people working under them,” Kreuser said. “This doesn’t just help Kenosha County, it helps unemployment in Racine County; It helps southeastern Wisconsin.”

Questions have been raised about how potential developers will access sewer and water in the newly-formed municipality.

But that appears to have been solved, thanks to a 2015 state budget provision introduced by state Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem) requiring the Kenosha Water Utility to provide access to neighboring municipalities.

At the time, the legislation had to do with increasing access to the Village of Somers, but Kerkman said it encompasses all of the municipalities in Kenosha County.

“In the past, the city has had trouble having conversations with its neighbors with regards to water,” Kerkman said.

Kerkman is supportive of the intergovernmental agreement, and hopes the city will embrace it. She said the infrastructure is already west of the interstate for the Uline development.

“The city should not do this for free, we want people to pay for what the city provides – but when everybody does well, the region does well,” Kerkman said. “There could be so much economic development down there.”

McTernan pointed out that the Highway 142 Uline site has been annexed to Kenosha. The city has passed a resolution opting out of the water provision and is not legally obligated to provide water to the communities, he said.

The need to provide services that are not available in the smaller municipalities as they develop, such as equipment if there is a large fire, has the new Kenosha mayor concerned.

So does the fact that the agreement limits Kenosha’s ability to grow. The city is bordered by Pleasant Prairie to the south, Lake Michigan to the east and Somers to the north. Its only opportunity for growth was the town of Paris, to its immediate west, since a village cannot be annexed.

“The city’s position is this is not in the best interest of Kenosha, nor do I think it creates a boundary that is sustainable,” Antaramian said. “We have always worked with our neighbors and even if it’s not always smooth, it makes sense. And of course the water is a major issue. The city will have to provide the water, and they will reap the benefits.”

Kreuser said he would prefer to not have water wars and thinks this is an easy issue to solve with a conversation – outside of the courtroom.

“If people want to argue what is right, then we can take it to the Public Service Commission and then to court,” Kreuser said. “I think it’s a fairly easy proposition, or it can be made more difficult. I’m shooting for easy.”

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