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Royse Myers: Battling Urban Sprawl In Caledonia With 25,000 Trees

For years this former businessman has been telling the world to keep out by planting 25,000 trees on more than 220 acres. But Ron Coutts, the Village president, says his investment has come at a cost to the Village by rendering the land undevelopable.

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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.”

Brian Dey December 17, 2012 at 02:23 AM
Fran- So are you saying that only open space adds to quality of life? I think churches and civic organizations do as well. I am a member of the Moose and they are a very charitable orgainization. I also go to church. I'm offended that you would attack Ron Coutts about Walmart on this very old blog. But I still don't see how the pony club on Hwy. 31 should be tax exempt. Heck, my house adds to my quality of life so why is it taxed? Fran, maybe you should run because we all know how factual you are.
ms December 17, 2012 at 03:23 AM
Fran, how do the trees on his land add to my quality of life. Land that I can never walk on. Land that I can never use to enjoy nature. It's private land. Pay your taxes. Also, please go read the report the paid for by the village. No where in the report does it conclude that big box stores are a net loss. It does state that they contribute somewhat less than other ommercial development. The proposal does include 5 commercial buildings in addition to the big box store so would these just be a bonus? I think you need to get your facts straight.
KEEP ON KEEPING ON December 17, 2012 at 02:22 PM
This article illustrates in a public forum that Mr. Coutt's recent statements about listening to both sides and the concerns of the community is skewed by the fact he feels "We need Wal-Marts". Second, it's 3, not 5 outlots for future development. The outlots on the West are the supposed buffer for homes right across the road. Finally, if you want to talk taxes, let's take a reasonable estimate of the assessed value of the proposed WM in today's market at 13 million. Being in district 719, the mill rate in 21.64/M. Take that total and 27%, or about $76,000 comes to the Village. Oh, but wait. Now we need to improve the roads. No, not WM's offer for curbs and traffic lights. They are not paying to widen roads, to improve a Class B road that cannot hold semi weight. Nor will they upkeep. What about sewers? What about hiring more police officers? There goes the revenue. That is what the 2011 Ehlers study pointed out in regards to Big Box development All so WM, who has been unable to secure a commercial lot with existing infrastructure, can manipulate our zoning and Land Use Plan for their own desires. Where is the potential in that location to build a commercial corridor? Where can other business build? This is NOT comparable the current WM on Hwy 11. It's more like putting a WM on Washington and West. With the exception of PNS and K-mart, the business that will be effected are small and local. There goes their tax revenue and jobs. IT DOES NOT BELONG THERE!
KEEP ON KEEPING ON December 17, 2012 at 03:03 PM
And this rabid need to have more revenue, more revenue!!! Is WM the only answer there is? Have we done ANYTHING towards investing in our commercial corridor. This same corridor WM asserts they belong in? They will sit at the corner of 2 residential roads while Douglas sits and does nothing?? All the wonderful business WM will attract is going where? To the West? North? South? On top of Calstar?? We passed a balanced Village Budget in 7 minutes! And people want to vilify a man for creating a conservancy? Because we can't gobble up revenue from it? And land by I-94 sits and waits? Talk about "under-utilized" as WM claims the parcels on NGB and 4 mile are. We have a County level and Village level Land Use Plan that calls for medium to hight density residential at that location. A small office building or bank type business would logically fit into the Plan as well. If we allow WM to rezone, that new zoning stands in direct conflict with the current Plans. Oh, but they assert because the parcel is part of the "Village Center" it belongs there. Yeah, I see the new WM in Greendale was put in the middle of their "Center". No, it was put on 76th street, WHERE IT BELONGS!!
Living Up to a Higher Standard December 17, 2012 at 10:41 PM
I agree with Keep On Keeping On: Is WM the only answer to generate more revenue? If Caledonia wants WM to add to its tax revenue base, put it further west, toward the interstate. WM brings with it a different economic and social quality to our area, including high traffic, non-stop noise/chaos, and will pull sales away from the existing businesses. Aren't there enough Wal-Mart's in our area? Really! K-Mart has struggled to stay in business. Does anyone really think putting a WM in direct competition with the already existing businesses in our area will benefit any of us that live and/or do business in the area? I've seen enough of what WM has to offer, from family members that work there, to century-old family businesses that have been squashed by WM's business (lack of) ethics. As a Village, other tax revenue generating avenues should be pursued, rather than prostituting Caledonia to WM.

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