On July 30, 2014, Carl Schwartz and I drove to Indianapolis to meet with Ralph Dischler about the possible purchase of his 104- acre property adjacent to WSO’s Honey Creek Preserve. Mr. Dischler was very interested in protecting the land from development since it contained three buildable lots and was keen to have WSO own the property.
However, we were not able to settle on a purchase price. The meeting ended without a purchase agreement but with a pledge that WSO was still interested in the property. In October 2014, as president I convened a special session of the Board of Directors to discuss details of the acquisition budget and pros and cons of using Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Grant funds to help acquire the land. These funds cover half the purchase price of a property, which appealed to board members. However, the downside of using Stewardship Funds was a requirement for increased public access to the property, including skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, hunting, and trapping. Of those, only trapping is not currently allowed on our existing preserve. The board agreed to postpone a decision regarding use of Stewardship Funds until there was more clarity about WSO’s fundraising abilities. The meeting ended with the board granting the WSO president and acquisition team approval to draft a purchase option for no more than the appraised value.
After the board discussion, Carl contacted WSO Legal Counsel Forrest D. Hartmann of Baraboo to ask of his willingness to draw up a purchase option. Carl then reconnected with Mr. Dischler and discussed the board’s unanimous vote to proceed with negotiations, our intent to use Stewardship funds to do this, and our hope that we could offer him an option on the land and proceed to raise the funds in one year. Mr. Dischler asked if there was a way to structure receipt of the sale proceeds over several years to reduce his tax liability and suggested that WSO buy the land in several pieces. Carl suggested they continue the conversation after he had consulted with other board members.
In early November, an ad-hoc committee consisting of Carl and Barbara Schwartz, Tom and Wendy Schultz, Michael John Jaeger and Kim Kreitinger met to design a fundraising campaign. The committee decided that the centerpiece would be a stunning Passenger Pigeon print by Tom Schultz that would be offered to donors at certain giving levels.
In February 2015, the conservation community received word that Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed state budget included a freeze on the purchase of new lands under the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund until 2028. This was particularly worrisome for WSO, which had determined that the Dischler acquisition would not be feasible without Stewardship funding. The WSO Board took a step back from acquisition negotiations until there was more clarity on the issue.
In early June, the Joint Finance Committee objected to Walker’s proposed 13-year freeze on Stewardship land acquisitions. Upon hearing this, Honey Creek neighbor and WSO member Mike Mossman contacted Mr. Dischler and reaffirmed WSO’s strong desire to purchase his property and requested permission to conduct breeding bird surveys on his land. During those surveys, Mike documented an incredible five Cerulean Warbler, three Acadian Flycatcher and two Hooded Warbler pairs – all state threatened species – along with a diversity of other bird species.
Mike stated: “The combination of the WSO, Dischler and TNC tracts is positively dynamite. The Dischler piece is not only critical to protect the viability of our (WSO) preserve, but it is excellent forest, which could not be recreated even with the best management, in over a century’s time — maybe ever.”
With the Stewardship program seemingly secure for at least the short term, I began working on the grant application. This process involved writing a land management plan, completing a project evaluation, soliciting letters of support, gathering deeds and other legal documents, and submitting a variety of maps. Partners from The Nature Conservancy, particularly Michelle KiIle, provided valuable advice and guidance through the application process. In total, the application took more than 30 hours.
In August, I reconvened the fundraising committee, which now included three additional members: Honey Creek Committee Chair Levi Wood, Development Chair Mary Korkor and Charlie Luthin, an experienced fundraiser. The team developed a general strategy and timeline for the campaign.
In the intervening months, Atty. Hartmann had retired, but Atty. Peter McKeever, who formerly headed the Wisconsin TNC, then stepped forward to serve as WSO legal counsel and handle the legalities of the acquisition.
I updated Mr. Dischler in late August and alerted him that WSO would be sending him a purchase agreement for the appraised value by mid-September.
In early October, he rejected the purchase agreement after his financial adviser concluded that our proposed escrow arrangement would do little to reduce his tax liability. Mr. Dischler suggested amending his will to give WSO right of first refusal on purchase of his property. We promised to investigate other acquisition strategies that would meet the needs of both parties and to continue the conversation.
In December, WSO received word that the purchase had been approved for a Stewardship grant. However, the DNR needed a second appraisal by the end of the year, leaving little time to negotiate a deal. Carl, Peter and I then decided to explore dividing the property into several parcels to be sold over multiple years.
Over the next several months, Mr. Dischler agreed to the idea of splitting his property into two parcels to be sold over two taxyears but a deal on the purchase price was more elusive.
After consulting with the WSO Board, I worked with Peter and our TNC partners to obtain an update to the 2014 appraisal. The updated appraisal came in the same as 2014 at $449,000.
WSO awaited the second appraisal from DNR and was prepared to offer Mr. Dischler the higher of the two appraisals. We continued to update the regional and state coordinators for the Stewardship grant on our progress and learned that the total Stewardship grant could indeed be issued in two contracts.
This meant that WSO would not need to reapply for the Stewardship grant as long as both contracts were awarded within a single fiscal year, enabling us to spread payment across two tax-years. This was very good news!
In early May, I received word that the DNR appraisal had come in at $500,000 and phoned Mr. Dischler the next day to let him know that we would be sending him a purchase agreement for that amount.
Mr. Dischler took a day to consider the offer and then called to verbally accept with one contingency – that the addition be named after his parents. Peter updated our agreement with the new terms.
On May 30 the agreement to purchase the Gerhard and Rose Dischler addition to the Honey Creek Preserve was signed by new WSO President Michael John Jaeger and the deal was complete!
This is part 2 of the story. Read part 1 here.
By Kim Kreitinger, immediate past president of WSO