Boat Launch Closed in Gills Rock

The Ellison Bay Boat Launch is busier than normal, but that doesn’t mean there’s more boating traffic in Liberty Grove. Since Jeff Weborg roped off his private boat launch in Gills Rock, boaters just have fewer options.

“The water went down so far that it was dangerous to get off the dock onto a boat,” Weborg said. “The water went down so far there needed to be some work on the ramp itself. For what it would cost to fix it, it wasn’t worth it to financially continue and I couldn’t leave it open because of the liability.”

The boat launch property has been in the Weborg family for longer than anyone can remember – his great-grandfather owned it in the mid-1860s and they’ve been there ever since. Weborg guesses the boat launch has been open to the public for 60 years.

“It’s been used as a public ramp for so long people thought it was public,” he said. “They didn’t know it was private.”

The Ellison Bay boat launch.

Weborg met with Liberty Grove Town Chairman John Lowry and clerk Walter Kalms to discuss working with the town to fix and reopen the property, but the parties decided not to follow through.

“At the end of the conversation we decided there wasn’t really anything we could do,” Lowry said. “It just kind of evaporated.”

A few years ago, Liberty Grove board members considered purchasing the boat launch from Weborg and two other shorefront properties for $2.35 million. The town hired an engineering firm to develop plans for the harbor and discussed a purchase agreement with Weborg, but the idea was voted down at a public meeting, 268-157.

“We spent about a year negotiating with Jeff [Weborg] on the purchase of the property and took it to the town in the fall of 2010, and it went down like a wounded duck,” Lowry said. “I don’t think people wanted the town to spend that kind of money.”

But some, like Death’s Door Marine owner Michael Kahr, see the value of having more access to the water in Liberty Grove.

“We’re a tourist area and without having good access to water it’s kind of ridiculous, and someone has to be looking out for the general public’s best interest,” Kahr said. “It’s sad not to see that happen, it really is.”

Kahr sees it from a construction angle. Weborg’s boat launch is in a good place – the water’s not too deep or too shallow, and it’s a good location for commercial fishing and recreational boating. It’s a logical spot to have a boat launch.

“I provide access to water, it’s what I do,” Kahr said. “It’s sad to see opportunities go by the wayside. We have no plans for anything in this state for water access, and when land comes available and we let it go by it’s sad…Someone in our government should be coming in and identifying these pieces of property and providing access to the general public and that’s not happening. That’s what bothers me.”

There are state and federal grants available for municipalities to purchase land for public use, and other grants available to develop it, but it’s a gamble for municipalities to plan on getting help.

“The grants are highly competitive,” said Natural Resources Program Supervisor Chris Halbur. “There’s only so much money and a lot of municipalities that apply every year.”

Crossing fingers for grant dollars is often not good enough for municipalities trying to convince voters to purchase property.

“The DNR was wrong in not being able to come through with a lot more positive approach to fund it,” Weborg said. “There certainly is a lot of different areas for funding, but you can’t go to the voters and say ‘it’s available’ and the voters ask ‘how much and when?’ and then say ‘I don’t know.’ You can’t do that. It’s not fair to the voters.”

In the past, the state has intervened to bring more public boat access to Liberty Grove. The DNR purchased shoreline in 2010 at Rowley’s Bay Resort for a little more than $1 million, including a 14-slip marina, a boat launch and a fishing pier. The town manages the launch ramp, and the DNR will give the space to the town in 2015.

Boat launches aren’t just about getting people on the water – they’re also about getting people into local businesses. Weborg estimates that his boat launch generated $300,000 for Liberty Grove, based on the number of launches he’d see in a summer and estimating a family of four spent about $200 a day.

But for some Door County municipalities spending public money to provide access to the water is worth the prospect of cashing in on vacationing boaters.

Kahr compared Gills Rock to Sister Bay, the nearby village that has spent millions in the past decades expanding its marina, beach and public waterfront.

“It was a lot of money, however, a lot of people are using it as well and that’s a good thing,” Kahr said. “You could take a picture of the Sister Bay facility and take a picture of the Gills Rock one, and see no one up in Gills Rock and hundreds in Sister Bay.”