Fallout Continues Between Friends & Town

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MTT News's picture
Kevin Murphy
A family is silhouetted in the setting sun at Pope Farm Conservancy during Sunflower Days. The Friends of Pope Farm Conservancy informed the Middleton town board they would no longer maintain the property.

TOWN OF MIDDLETON–In another sign of the crumbling relationship between the Friends of Pope Farm Conservancy and the town board, the Friends group said it will withdraw from maintenance activities at the conservancy.

In an August 15 letter from the Friends to the Town of Middleton board, the volunteer group stated that:

“The Friends have had too many differences with the Town in recent years, and those differences have increased to a point where the Friends no longer wish to be involved with the physical maintenance of the property and the interaction with the Town that it requires.”

Instead, the Friends want to concentrate on the educational activities it has developed with the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District (MCPASD and the public at the 102-acre property on Old Sauk Rd.

“(W)e believe working to help the school educate students and teaching the public will be very rewarding for our membership. We will continue to look at ways to help you improve the Conservancy to advance its educational mission,” according to the unsigned letter from the Friends board of directors.

Specifically, the Friends won’t help maintain the five prairies that have been restored since the town purchased the property from the Pope family in 2002, and other non-prairie areas it has managed. It will complete projects and activities in progress.

The Friends have built the conservancy into an education tacitly which includes hosting field trips for hundreds of grade school children.

Pope Farm Elementary School, adjacent to the conservancy and scheduled to open next September, provides a “golden opportunity” for the Friends “to help the school system teach students about the nature world and the stories of the land,” according to the letter.

Mel Pope, who chairs the Friends board of directors, told the Times-TribuneTuesday morning, “We want to continue our efforts in education and we see this as a positive opportunity to work with the schools, the students and the public.”

Perry Hibner, spokesman for MCPASD, directed questions about how the new school would use the conservancy to Principal Jessica Taylor, who couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday morning.

Town Chair Cynthia Richson called the falling out between the town board and the Friends “very unfortunate.”

“Everybody loses when an emotional connection to a piece of property gets in the way of logic. Pope Farm Conservancy is a beautiful, special place and I want it cared for. The Friends volunteers have helped out a lot in that regard,” she said Tuesday.

Town Administrator Greg DiMiceli put the value of the Friends maintenance activities at $9,200 annually but Richson said the value is incalculable.

“It’s been really invaluable. I took a tour with Curt Caslavka this summer and he pointed out the prairies and a butterfly migration project underway…the care and love for the conservancy was just so apparent,” Richson said.

Richson said she didn’t know what changes the Friends may have planned for the educational activities at the conservancy. The town board and the Friends couldn’t reach an agreement last year on their respective roles concerning the conservancy.

The relationship soured between the Friends and the town board over money, Richson said.

It probably began in April 2018 with the Friends “last minute” notice to the town that it wouldn’t be sponsoring Sunflower Days that coming August, she said. The 10-day event was cancelled in 2018 but resumed this year under the town’s sponsorship and a $4 admission fee for those over 10 years old.

The Friends hadn’t disclosed what they did with the funds they raised, Richson said, until they received a $40,000 donation last year for future education programs. That amount required them to disclose more information about their finances under IRS regulations for 501(c)(3) non-profits.

The Stewardship grant the town used to partly acquire the Pope farm property required the funds raised on the property to be kept in a segregated bank account for use on the conservancy. 

`“That was the biggest issue. We have no idea how they used the money (from prior fundraisers),” she said.

When the town presented the Friends with an agreement last fall requiring adherence to the spending provisions that attach to Stewardship grants, the Friends wouldn’t sign, Richson said.

In their letter, the Friends hoped there is the possibility of reestablishing “a positive working relationship with the town.” Richson welcomed that possibility too, but said the town wouldn’t budge on the money issue.

In other action at Monday’s town board meeting:

DiMiceli informed the board that the $1.5 million the town netted from the sale of 39 acres of the Pope farm property to the school district had been completely spent. 

The sale proceeds had been put into the park fund but the balance had declined by about $100,000 annually and the fund’s current $1 million balance was from developer contributions in lieu of parkland dedication.

In budget discussions, the town board will consider the need to change the $2,255 park fee charged when residential lots are platted.

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