DNR Rescinds West Side Waterfront Ruling

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources withdrew its declaratory ruling on the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) on Sturgeon Bay’s west side waterfront Tuesday, May 15.

In a statement the DNR said the Department of Justice instructed the DNR that its ruling was based upon inaccurate and incomplete information. James Dick, spokesman for the DNR, said the next steps have not been determined.

The Friends of Sturgeon Bay Public Waterfront petitioned the DNR to issue a ruling after suing to stop construction of a hotel on the land at the western foot of the Oregon Street Bridge. The DNR issued its ruling Feb. 5 after five months of reviewing documents and testimony regarding the line. After that ruling, both the city and Friends group petitioned for judicial review of the ruling, but the city stipulated that it would withdraw its petition if the Friends group did not file.

The Friends group notified the DNR that the location of the 1835 meander line used as a base in making the OHWM determination was inaccurate.

“This didn’t come as any surprise to us,” said Mary Beth Parenteau, the attorney representing the Friends group.

Sturgeon Bay administrator Josh VanLieshout also expected the ruling would be withdrawn. He said the city will review the information and attempt to determine the DNR’s next steps before taking further action.

The mark is important because it determines where private development can occur along the waterfront. Land waterward of the OHWM is deemed to be in the public trust, and cannot be used for private development.

The city has been grappling with questions about the public trust doctrine since at least 2013, when city attorneys and planners were informed by a title company that it could not provide title insurance on the property due to the OHWM question.

Parenteau said she’s hopeful the Friends group and the city can return to the negotiating table and reach a settlement on the issue, rather than wait for a new determination from the DNR.

“With a new city council, there might be a good opportunity,” she said. In April’s election two aldermen, Stewart Fett and Richard Wiesner, who were opposed to past settlement options lost re-election battles, and a third, Ron Vandertie, retired.

VanLieshout said he couldn’t predict what the city council would do, but settlement talks are “in the realm of possibility.”

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