In Ephraim, a conflict is brewing over a classic case of public versus private rights. On one side is the Yacht Harbor, a for-profit business offering moorage for boats throughout the summer. This spring, the Harbor applied to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to move its existing pier toward the edge of its property to accommodate more yachts and generate more profits.
In opposition are many of us affiliated with the neighboring non-profit EYC sailing program. In a contentious DNR hearing last month, arguments were made that the new pier would reduce access to the water on the protected side of the EYC’s breakwater. That’s where the century old program offers sailing and powerboating instruction to more than a hundred students annually. EYC operates sailing races most days and hosts Gibraltar High School’s sailing team every fall (I myself competed on this team). Anyone can join and scholarships are available to local residents for lessons. There are no profits, and the only wages are paid to instructors.
Sailors need adequate space to launch boats and operate safety vessels in the already crowded adjoining waterway. As an instructor in the program, I worry that adding congestion would greatly increase the risk of injury to our young sailors.
Hence the conflict: Public benefits of waterways versus private rights of land owners.
That’s where it gets interesting. Wisconsin law acknowledges some rights of waterfront land owners, but also protects the public’s right to water quality, navigation, and recreational activities. When public and private rights to waterways are in conflict, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court has ruled that the public rights are primary and the owner rights are secondary. There is simply no greater public interest than ensuring the safety of our youngest sailors.
Last week, the DNR followed precedent with a ruling that guards the public’s rights by permitting only modest movement of the pier. Doing so protects our young sailors and ensures that the water is accessible to everyone.