Door County Community Divided Over Waterfront Development Plan

Jul 18, 2017

Update, July 19: Tuesday's common council meeting did not result in a step toward resolution of the Sturgeon Bay waterfront debate.  The proposed compromise  was being discussed, when the mayor announced he had to leave.  The council voted to adjourn.

The DNR is expected to hold a public hearing next month. City leaders may wait for that process to play out before considering its next step.   Original post, July 18:

Sturgeon Bay’s downtown waterfront hums with both commerce and tourism. People enjoy strolling along a vintage steel bridge. Others watch shipbuilding in progress, while working tug boats gurgle to and fro.

Yet steps away, a forlorn parcel mars the view. Picture heaps of gravel sprout weeds and vacant granary, tall, white and barnlike.

Artist rendering of earlier plan for the parcel.
Credit Marty Olejniczak

Community development director Marty Olejniczak says negotiations were well-underway to sell the city-owned parcel.

“The original waterfront development plan included a 50 to 60 room hotel, a brewery-slash-restaurant and a four-seasons market which we liked to call a mini version of the Milwaukee Public Market,” Olejniczak says.

Residents like Laurel Hauser consider the waterfront location perfect for other things -- recreation and green space. "You could rent bikes from here, you could have a kayak slip that you enter the water somewhere along here,” Hauser says.

The now-vacant granary (far left) is pictured in this 1904 postcard.
Credit Door County Historical Museum

Hauser sees historic value in the empty granary. It dates back to 1901.

“Ships would come and load up here and delivered to Milwaukee and Chicago. This is the last historic remaining icon of what a lot of people think allowed a lot of people to settle here. Obviously the shipbuilding, but agriculture was a big deal too,” Hauser says.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when the city was floating the hotel/commercial design, Hauser says residents shared myriad ideas and concerns with common council members at a public meeting.

“About 300 people showed up and after about an hour-and-a-half of people really eloquently and passionately talking about what they wanted to see done here, the council made no comment and voted the opposite way,” Hauser says.

Despite the city’s green light the project didn’t move forward.

Nancy Aten is one reason why. The Door County resident is a landscape architect, but back during her training she learned about a fundamental, yet not commonly known principal written into the state constitution. Called the Public Trust Doctrine it requires the state to protect its (navigable) waters for everyone’s access.

“It’s one of the first things that struck me about the proposed development was that looks like the Public Trust Doctrine should be a factor here and has the city really looked into it,” Aten says.

The Friends of Sturgeon Bay Public Waterfront came to life as a result of the local debate. The group suggested this design as one possible plan for the parcel.
Credit Nancy Aten

Aten says the doctrine does more than ensure access to open streams and lakes, but also to filled land that used to be lakebed. Aten dug into old maps and records of Sturgeon Bay’s waterfront.

“It was filled lakebed and the shoreline ran right through the middle of it and it should be protected for the public,” Aten says.

Aten was one of the residents who tried to stop the development. They filed a lawsuit.

Tension mounted last March when a circuit court judge forbade the city from selling or developing the parcel until the DNR determined the official line between land and water.

In a matter of weeks, the DNR came up with a suggestion – more of an irregular series of connected lines – that left neither side satisfied. The city said it left too little developable land, while opponents said the DNR moved too quickly to be scientific.

The city was determined to move forward – and took incongruous steps to get there. The common council voted to ask the state legislature to draw the development line. Another council vote created an ad hoc committee assigned to attempt compromise with the plaintiffs.

Community development director Marty Olejniczak says the city intends to move forward with developing the land -- and describes the need to push through the impasse as imperative.

“We are trying to create public space down there and it’s ironic that if the city continues to be unable to develop this property that the actually public – the citizens of Sturgeon Bay might end up losing the whole development,” Olejniczak says.

1925 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers survey

Laurel Hauser – the woman we met at the waterfront – acted on her concern. In part because she felt the voices of residents weren’t being heard, last spring Hauser ran and was voted into the common council. She’s one of several new people new to the council since Sturgeon Bay’s waterfront debate caught fire.

Earlier this summer, Hauser represented the city when it sat down with plaintiffs. She thinks the city can balance development and conservation.

“It was a dozen reasonable people in a room coming out of it with something we think can work. And nobody got exactly what they wanted, but they could live with what they got,” Hauser adds, “ That’s the definition of a successful negotiation.”

In what could be a step forward, the Sturgeon Bay common council is expected to vote on the proposed compromise later today (Tuesday).

Citizens holding out for public access hope the decision of what to do with the plot of land at Sturgeon Bay’s waterfront upholds, rather than erodes what they’re calling a fundamental right of Wisconsin’s constitution.

Another view of the parcel from steel bridge. Maritime museum (right) and parcel with granary left.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio