Top GOP lawmakers step in to stop big dairy farm in their home districts

2011-04-01T05:00:00Z 2012-05-22T17:35:25Z Top GOP lawmakers step in to stop big dairy farm in their home districtsJESSICA VANEGEREN | The Capital Times |

Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues have signaled on more than a few occasions that the state’s environmental regulations will not get in the way of doing business in Wisconsin.

Take the efforts afoot to roll back the recently passed statewide phosphorus ban, repeal the mandatory recycling law, and overhaul wind farm siting rules.

Yet late last week, two of the state’s top Republican lawmakers helped abruptly halt an effort to expand a prison-run dairy farm operation that would have been located within a mile of a lake in their home districts. In a news release titled “Fitzgeralds Help Protect Fox Lake Water Quality,” they cited environmental factors as the reason.

“This project would have severely affected the water quality of the Fox Lake and caused considerable damage to property owners in my district,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon.

Neither lawmaker is a member of the State Building Commission but the brothers noted in their March 24 news release that they brought their concerns to members of the panel, which then passed an amendment to withdraw the project from the capital budget.

Construction of the $5.4 million, 75-acre farm at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution — which would have consolidated the prison dairy operations that also exist at prison facilities in Oregon and Waupun — was scheduled to begin in August. The farm would have housed up to 1,000 dairy cows.

At around 2,625 acres, Fox Lake is bigger than Lake Waubesa (2,082 acres), but not as large as Lake Monona (3,275 acres). It is located about 50 miles northeast of Madison, in the northwest corner of each of the Fitzgerald’s districts. A recreational lake known for year-round fishing, its shoreline is dotted with everything from pricey new homes to smaller cottages and residences.

The Fox Lake Correctional Institution is within a mile of Fox Lake’s northern shoreline. One of the lake’s tributaries, Drew Creek, runs through the prison property that was slated for farmland.

Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, a former executive with the Sierra Club, describes the Fitzgerald brothers’ actions as “a good thing” though he suggests re-election could have been their primary motivation.

Still, adds Hulsey, “We want to see the same thing done across the state. Not just in their districts.”

The Fitzgerald brothers declined to comment on whether their push to protect Fox Lake reflected a broader stance on environmental issues.

The State Building Commission, which is chaired by Walker, voted March 16 to stop the project by removing its funding from the capital budget.

In their news release, the brothers said they approached the panel after hearing concerns from their Dodge County constituents that runoff from the farm would pollute Fox Lake.

Ed Benter, treasurer and clerk of the city of Fox Lake, says he is one of those constituents and he is pleased the project is dead.

“The phosphorus levels in our lake are already high enough,” Benter says. “Our main objection to this project all along was it was only a half-mile from the lake.”

The farm project was approved in former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s 2009-11 budget, with $50,500 of the $5.4 million price tag allocated for the project. Walker’s capital budget included the rest of the funding.

The new dairy operation would have included a manure digester, which turns manure into such products as fertilizers and extracts methane gas to produce energy.

“The rationale for the Fox Lake area site was tied to the digester technology and the ability to provide Fox Lake Correctional Institution with power, thus cutting costs,” said Tim Le Monds, a spokesman with the state Department of Corrections. “The goal was to take current DOC farm locations and consolidate them at one location, saving money and updating water management technology at the same time.”

Farming operations run by the Department of Corrections date back to the 1800s. These days, inmates who work on the farms earn between 40 cents and $1.60 an hour. The prison farms produce enough milk and other dairy products to supply all prisons across the state. Last year, the state struck a deal with the Minnesota Department of Corrections to supply it with milk as well.

Because of that agreement, Wisconsin sold 5 million half-pint cartons of milk to Minnesota last year.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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