Creation of the District: Final steps toward a metropolitan district

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“Creation of the District: Final steps toward a metropolitan district” is the fourth in a four-part series outlining the formation of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. Visit the History section of our blog for additional articles in the series, as well as “Flow of history…” articles documenting the early years of wastewater treatment in the Madison area.

By Paul Nehm

During the time that the petitions for the creation of a metropolitan district were being circulated, several individuals appeared at public meetings to explain the advantages of the metropolitan district. Usually, the discussions centered around the health benefits of such a district and the economic benefits of having one entity responsible for wastewater treatment rather than many individual communities being responsible.

At times other more parochial reasons were given. For instance, at a meeting of the Madison Real Estate board, City Engineer Parker stated that the creation of the district would reduce the bonded indebtedness of Madison by $3 million since the district would have to reimburse the city for existing improvements.

A historic 1935 photograph of Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant taken within a few years of the creation of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District.
A historic 1935 photograph of Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant taken within a few years of the creation of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District.

He also noted that the creation of the district “would take from the shoulders of Madison the task of keeping Monona clean and would prevent the carelessness of sewage plant operations that is likely to occur at Middleton as it does in most communities.” At this meeting, Mr. Parker said the district may eventually annex the Stoughton Plant. With the reduced indebtedness, he thought it would be possible to dredge the Yahara River from Stoughton to Madison which would greatly benefit flood control.

Final steps to creating the District

The required number of signatures on the petition was reached on November 23. The attorneys for Madison, Middleton, Shorewood Hills and the towns then met to determine how to proceed. The attorneys had to decide if the petitions would be filed by the city of Madison or by a citizens’ committee. It was agreed that the petitions would be filed by the firm of Sanborn, Blake, and Aberg as representatives of citizens sponsoring the petition.

On November 30, 1929, attorney Blake filed the petitions for the creation of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. Dane County Judge George Kroncke set December 27 as the deadline for any objections to be filed, and later scheduled a preliminary hearing to be held that same day. During that hearing, Judge Kroncke set January 14, 1930, as the date for a public hearing on the petitions. 

Objections to creating a metropolitan district

During the December 27 preliminary hearing, the attorney for the Village of Middleton filed several objections to the creation of the district. Among other things, his objections included the fact that Middleton had let contracts for their treatment plant and was financially able to complete the project. Plus, the State Board of Health had approved the plans which were in accord with the “most advanced scientific sewage treatment methods.”

In addition, he claimed that section 66.20 of the State Statutes was unconstitutional.  The attorney for the Town of Middleton stated that the township had similar objections, while a representative of the Town of Blooming Grove stated that the town would also be filing objections.

Although it seems in general that there was fairly widespread support for the formation of a metropolitan sewerage district, the main objections were on which lands should be included in it. The costs associated with the creation of the district were also a point of contention during the hearing.

State Board of Health favors a larger district

About 100 people were present for the opening hearing on January 14, 1930. Five and one-half days of testimony ended on January 21. Judge Kroncke then heard another day of arguments by attorneys on January 27.

During the testimony phase, several members of the State Board of Health appeared in favor of the creation of the district. Dr. Harper noted that 75 to 80% of small wastewater treatment plants are not operated properly. His concern was that if improper operation occurred at the Middleton plant, this would have a serious effect on the use of Lake Mendota as a drinking water source.

State sanitary engineer Warrick testified that the plant would operate well if it had close supervision. Mr. Warrick felt that the plant operator should have training in chemistry, understand the fundamental mechanical operation of the plant and have some knowledge of bacteriology. On the other hand, Mr. Parsons, the designer of the system, felt that “one man with ordinary common sense” would be sufficient to operate the plant.

As an example of his concern for the ability of smaller plants to operate correctly, Mr. C.M. Baker, State Sanitary Engineer, remarked that he had never found the treatment plant for the Mendota Hospital to be operating properly. This was similar to his experience at other small plants throughout the state.

The District is formed and first Commissioners selected

On February 3, 1930, the Capital Times reported that Judge George Kroncke had ordered that the metropolitan sewerage district should be formed. It was not until February 8, however, that the judge signed the formal order for the establishment of the district. A week later, the newspaper reported that the Commissioners of the District had been selected by Judge Kroncke.

Appointed for a one-year term, Ernest Warner was described as a member of the law firm of Warner and Risser. Mr. Warner was president of the Park and Pleasure Drive Association and chairman of the board of Northwestern Securities Company. Frank Blied, appointed for a two-year term, was the president of both Blied Printing Company and Blied Office Supplies. Charles Seastone, the third Commissioner, was described merely as a member of the firm of Mead and Seastone. Mr. Seastone was appointed for a three-year term.

Mr. Warner and Mr. Blied had been supporters of the creation of the District. Although a well-known engineer, there was no official indication of any involvement by Mr. Seastone in arguments for or against the district. The Commissioners were sworn in by Judge Kroncke on February 17, 1930. 

Setting the precedent for cautious growth

The judge made it clear that he expected that the Commissioners would “proceed cautiously and not faster than the burdens can be borne by taxpayers.” He further warned the Commissioners that “in whatever development engineers may project, the commissioners should exercise a conservative restraint, for the simple reason that engineers and experts in projecting their designs are usually more enthusiastic as to the importance of their project than the community can well bear.”

Judge Kroncke did agree with some of the arguments to eliminate some of the lands that had originally been proposed to be included in the District. He ruled that agricultural land that was not likely to become urban within twenty to twenty-five years should not be part of the District. He then listed a number of agricultural lands that should be removed from the original proposed district boundaries. 

During the first year of operation of the District, the Commissioners had to deal with many issues. Among other things, these included the untimely accidental death of Commissioner Warner; the construction of a pumping station and an interceptor to connect the Middleton sewer system to District facilities; the construction of a temporary treatment plant in Middleton to treat wastewater from that system until the connection could be made to the District system; and the need to develop maps of the area within the District to allow for financial assessments to be made.

Some of the information for the article series and Middleton wastewater treatment was found in “Madison – A History of the Formative Years” by David V. Mollenhoff and in articles written by early leaders from Madison’s public works sector. The article was originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the District’s newsletter, The Clarifier.