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Editor’s Note: Click on the map to see details about the transactions.

The buffer zone around the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant has grown to include 200 acres over the past seven years and most of those properties have vanished from the property tax roll.

Brian Manthey, a spokesperson for We Energies said the utility bought 25 properties between 2009 and 2015. They also purchased 8127 Botting Road and 7919 Michna Road in 2016. The 27 transactions total about $9.1 million for 196 acres along Botting Road, Douglas Avenue, County Line Road, Michna Road, and as far south as 7 Mile Road. The assessed value of those properties in 2014: about $3.4 million.

The utility isn’t showing signs of stopping that trend. Several homes around the plant are listed under Jane Dulisse, a real estate agent for Shorewest Realty, according to MLS Listings. Dulisse handled the majority of sales between 2009 and 2016 where We Energies was the buyer, but We Energies said that it is not approaching property owners directly.

A number of homeowners that still live around the plant are in mediation talks with We Energies about buying their properties.

Growing Buffer Zone, Less Tax Revenue

Coal dustWith 23 properties off the tax roll, those properties are exempt from paying taxes under a state exemption. For the Village of Caledonia alone, that’s almost a $70,000 per year loss that taxpayers have to make up. Gateway Technical College, the Racine Unified School District, state and county taxes are also not receiving property taxes from those properties.

So what is We Energies planning to do with the land?

“We do not have any current plans for the parcels other than for it to serve as buffer property,” Manthey said. “We evaluate each property individually as to whether or not it would qualify as buffer property and whether or not we would make an offer.”

Because the utility now owns the properties and is exempt from paying property taxes on land it acquires for a buffer zone, the village cannot collect property taxes from them. But We Energies still pays a utility tax on its gross receipts for sales, which then comes back to the village in the form of state shared revenue, Manthey said.

“In lieu of property taxes, Wisconsin utilities – including We Energies – are required to pay a gross receipts tax on total gross sales,” said Brian Manthey, spokesperson for We Energies. “The state uses the combined tax revenue collected to provide shared revenue utility payments to communities that have utility facilities and property. Those shared revenue utility payments are based on a state formula.

“The 23 parcels off the tax rolls would be considered for potential shared revenue utility payments.”

Contaminated wells, changing limits

What perpetuated the sale of at least some of the properties bought between 2009 and 2014: Molybdenum.

Molybdenum is a naturally occurring element in the earth’s crust and in water in low levels. But it’s also a byproduct of coal combustion and industrial waste. While humans already have trace amounts of molybdenum in their bodies, drinking water with high levels of molybdenum may carry some risk to humans including digestive problems and gout.

We Energies reported to the DNR that 21 private well samples exceeded the state limit on Molybdenum of 40 micrograms per liter. But in 2013, the health advisory level was raised from 40 to 90. Even after the level was raised, We Energies continued to buy properties around the plant.

One homeowner, who did not want to be named, said We Energies bought their property because of the Molybdenum issue. A number of those property owners that sold their homes to We Energies have had health concerns.

“We were all told that we had contaminated wells back then,” the woman said. “I told them… well, I guess you are going to have to buy my house.”

We Energies officials told the homeowners in 2009 and 2010 that it conducted an investigation into the source of the molybdenum and boron. Their position: Oak Creek Power Plant was not the source of the contamination.

Still, a DNR investigation in 2011 was not successful in identifying the source of the heavy metal. The report said that Hunts Landfill — an industrial waste dump about 1.5 miles away from the homes — was not the source of the Molybdenum even though high levels of the heavy metals were found in the leaching from the We Energies ash landfills, according to the DNR Summary.
“The investigation did not succeed in identifying the source of the molybdenum. The molybdenum isotope data were inconclusive,” the document reads.

Buffer zone to continue to grow

Now, almost 20 families — who still live around the plant — are talking with the utility about the impact of living next to the Oak Creek Power Plant, which they say has had an impact on their health, drinking water, and property values over the years.

Some of those property owners could receive offers from We Energies to purchase their homes, according to several sources who did not want to be named. If We Energies buys those properties, they could be included in the buffer zone.

In 2015, the mediation group and We Energies tested 26 homes for the presence of coal dust and fly ash last year. Of the homes that were tested, 19 out of 26 homes tested positive for the presence of coal-like particles.

Four other properties  — separate from the mediation — around the power plant are also up for sale.

Village board responds

Repeated calls made to village president Bob Bradley, village administrator Tom Christensen, and Rep. Tom Weatherston (R-Caledonia) were not returned.

But village trustees Kevin Wanggaard and Ed Willing said they were unaware of how many acres were included in the buffer zone.

“I certainly support the idea of having a buffer zone if we need one, but the fact that we need one is part of the problem,” Willing said. “I don’t know if a buffer zone is really going to keep toxic particles away from our residents. I’ve made a couple of comments about this over the last few months and there was no chatter about it at all. I feel like I’m the lone wolf on the board about this.”

Wannggard said that officials with We Energies have not shared any plans about what they potentially could to with the buffer zone.

“I’m speaking for myself though when I say this: I always have concerns when uses of large parcels in the village change,” he said. “That goes for commercial, residential or anything where we could have had something come here.”

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.