Clay Banks Objects to Land Trust Purchase

County remains supportive of Knowles-Nelson, but maintained a position of neutrality on the individual purchase

The Door County Land Trust sought the County of Door’s support this week after the Town of Clay Banks threw the nonprofit a curve ball and opposed its purchase of land within the town’s borders.

The Land Trust had asked for the county’s support to counter-balance the Feb. 12 resolution Clay Banks passed objecting to the Land Trust’s purchase of 75 acres of former dairy-farm land within the town. The land features a half-mile of Bear Creek that flows into Lake Michigan, and its open fields, wetlands, native forest, bluffs and 50-foot stream banks, are habitats for birds and native pollinators. 

The Clay Banks resolution passed 2-1, with Supervisor Mark Heimbecher casting the dissenting vote, and Supervisor Patrick Olson and Chair Myron Johnson in favor.

“It weighs on our heart, this resolution,” Emily Wood, Land Trust executive director, told the Peninsula Pulse last week. “We don’t know how the community will receive it. That’s why we’re worried – about what damage it could have.”

The town’s objections can’t sink the land deal – the Land Trust bought the property Oct. 19, 2023 – but the Land Trust is seeking $314,372 in Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program funding to defray the $615,000 purchase and associated costs. If they’re not reimbursed that money, future land acquisitions will be compromised, Wood said. 

State law requires the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to send letters to the county and municipalities when Knowles-Nelson grant funds have been “tentatively awarded.” Statute also allows the county and the municipality to adopt a resolution to support or oppose those projects. The state is required to consider those non-binding resolutions, but doesn’t have to heed them.

“We know the letters went out and so we think that’s what triggered it,” from Clay Banks, Wood said.

The county has received four such letters from the DNR this grant cycle, notifying them of tentative awards for Land Trust purchases for the purpose of conservation and public recreation: the 75 acres in Clay Banks; two separate purchases in Baileys Harbor, one for 79 acres, another for 18; and 20 acres of land on Washington Island. 

Only the Clay Banks land has been purchased; Wood said the other purchases are still pending. And only the Clay Banks request exceeds $250,000, which throws the application into a murky approval process. Anything below that dollar amount is decided by the DNR. Anything above, and the request is kicked to the state’s 16-member Joint Committee on Finance, a budget-writing committee made up of legislators from the state Senate and Assembly. Any of those committee’s members can anonymously object to a grant and stall the process, without the reason being divulged to the public.

Local projects in Sister Bay and Egg Harbor have fallen victim to this waiting game, and Joint Finance’s process has come under fire. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is scheduled to review the stewardship grant process in April.

Meanwhile, throwing a municipal objection into that mysterious approval mix has the Land Trust worried. 

“This means, essentially, there’s still one last hurdle it could get hung up on,” Wood said.

Clay Banks’ Objections, Land Trust’s Responses

Johnson did not respond to a request for comment from the Pulse, but the resolution lays out the town’s objections that the land was already protected by county and town zoning and state wetlands zoning; that the purchase price “far exceeds reasonable consideration” when an acre of similar land goes for $4,643, versus the $8,200 per acre the Land Trust paid; that the town was never contacted to determine local support; that the Land Trust didn’t consider the impact of the purchase on the community; and that the purpose of the land’s use under Land Trust ownership is “inconsistent and incompatible” with the town’s comprehensive land use plan.

“This proposed project, located in our pleasant rural living environment, would be a conflicting land use,” the resolution states. “It would seriously impact the character of our agricultural community by introducing non-farm recreational activities.”

When Wood attended the Clay Banks Feb. 12 meeting, she did not know what the resolution contained – Chairman Johnson, she said, withheld it from her until after it was taken up at the meeting, a practice the Pulse has also encountered when seeking agenda-item documents from Clay Banks prior to the meeting. Speaking to the Pulse about the town’s objections, Wood said the town’s assertion is false that the town’s current zoning already protected the land from the threat of development, as zoning can change.

“Zoning is not permanent protection,” she said. “It’s not a land protection tool, it’s a land planning tool.”

As for the purchase price of the Clay Banks property, the Land Trust can’t negotiate a price and is required to pay what an approved appraiser says it’s worth.

“We pay the appraised value; period,” she said. “There were offers [for the Clay Banks property] that were higher than ours, but the seller chose to sell to us so the land could be protected. It may be overpriced, but that’s the market right now. We’re not driving it.”

She said they also do not believe their intended use of the land for conservation and recreational purposes is incompatible with agricultural land.

“Opening it for hunting, fishing, cross-country skiing – we don’t believe this conflicts with a peaceful vision of the town, or the rural agricultural landscape,” she said.

She also said they would gladly alert municipalities to potential purchases if that’s something they desired, and talk about protocol, but they’ve had negative interactions with Clay Banks in the past.

“It didn’t seem they wanted to collaborate,” Wood said.

The Land Trust already protects 435 acres within Clay Banks – including the 92-acre Legacy Nature Preserve – over half of that (224 acres) via conservation easements, which remain in private ownership. 

Land Trust property is exempt from property taxes, but taking the property off the tax rolls was not one of Clay Banks’ objections. Wood said the 75-acre parcel they purchased would have generated $500 this year in property tax, with less than $20 of that going to the town. 

“I’m very sympathetic that it comes off the tax rolls,” she said. “We know it’s something that’s felt in these small municipalities. But we are adding value.”

County Maintains Precedent of Neutrality

Though the Land Trust had hoped to counterbalance Clay Banks’ objections with County of Door support, the Administrative committee decided by consensus Feb. 20 to remain neutral, as they’ve done on all other Knowles-Nelson grant applications. 

“I would say we just go along with what we’ve done in the past, as an interested observer, and move forward,” said Dave Lienau, Door County Board Chair, and chair of the county’s Administrative Committee, during the meeting. 

When the Pulse asked Lienau after the meeting if the potentially damaging circumstances warranted a county position, Lienau reaffirmed his belief in a precedent of neutrality.

“We have put resolutions together to support Knowles-Nelson; the county believes it’s a good program to have,” he said.

But as far as individual projects, “the county has never done a ‘for’ or ‘against.’” 

Immediately after the meeting, Wood said she hadn’t yet decided their next step to rally support.

“We will likely try to get some other feedback to the DNR grant administrators to counterbalance the opposition,” she said.