The waters of Lake Michigan were lapping gently on the stones of Pebble Beach as Jack Hayes corralled his family for a photo July 15. The beach has been a staple of the Lisle, Illinois, family’s Door County vacations for 20 years, but on this day, the Hayes family wondered how much longer that would last.
The 600-foot beach and accompanying 17 acres were put up for sale for $3.6 million last year, and plans to open the property to private homes or condominiums have been progressing slowly since then.
“I vote they keep it the way it is,” Hayes said. “We come here every time we visit. We have a picture of Pebble Beach on a piece of wood that hangs in our sunroom.”
This week the members of the Hayes family – and thousands of others who have flocked to Pebble Beach to swim, relax and catch some of the best views of Door County sunsets – got the news they were hoping for: the property at the end of Little Sister Road will be preserved forever.
The Door County Land Trust and the Village of Sister Bay announced July 25 that they have entered into an agreement to purchase the property from the Luber family and will enter into a conservation agreement to preserve and open the beach and land for public use for generations to come. The deal will close in mid-September if the Land Trust is able to raise the $500,000 for its portion of the project. The parcel has an assessed value of $3,370,400, according to the Door County Real Property listing. The purchase does not include Little Sister Resort or Fred & Fuzzy’s restaurant, which also went on the market last year.
The beach has long been a closely guarded secret of locals and select seasonal workers and visitors. The quiet, secluded beach of soft limestone rocks perfect for skipping and sunbathing has been a getaway between split shifts, a favorite spot for post-work dips and a cherished harbor for boaters looking to avoid the crowds of the county’s popular sand beaches.
Inland, the parcel includes at least 12 late- and post-glacial beach ridges and cedar forest. The property includes several lightly developed trails but no structures.
“This is a fabulous piece of the niagara escarpment with ridges and swales, let alone the beautiful beach,” explained trustee Denise Bhirdo. “It means a lot to a lot of locals and to many visitors. There’s a serenity to it.”
When the Luber family announced it was putting the property on the market, the news sent shockwaves through the community, but the $3.6 million price tag was too steep for municipalities to seriously consider snapping it up for public use. In December 2018, the Lubers proposed to subdivide the shoreline into four lots for development.
But then the Door County Land Trust got a well-timed phone call from the Wisconsin Department of Administration, which was curious whether the land trust had any projects that would fit the requirements of the Coastal Management Program’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants. It just so happened that a shoreline project in southeastern Wisconsin had fallen through, and $1 million was available for the right project.
“It started as whispers from neighbors, village officials and the public,” said Tom Clay, executive director of the Door County Land Trust. “But that brought this from whispering to something we thought we might be able to pull off.”
Although the amount was not enough to buy the property, it got the land trust and the Village of Sister Bay working in earnest. The grant requires that the property be owned and managed by a local unit of government. At the same time, the Luber family offered to lower the property’s sale price by $1.2 million, under the condition that it be protected from future development.
“We’ve been on Little Sister Road for nearly 60 years and really appreciate what it’s all about,” said Paul Luber. “We’re thrilled to have this opportunity to put this in place in perpetuity in conservation.”
Luber’s father, Fred, purchased the property in the 1960s with his friend Art Downey. Over time, the two families built several homes on the shore, but they left the bottom of the bay untouched. According to the Door County Land Records website, the families paid $44,722 in property taxes in 2018 on a parcel that beach-goers long assumed was public property. Although Luber said most people are considerate, family members did grow tired of picking up trash on the beach each week.
“For our families, not developing it was just about protecting that bay that we grew up on,” Luber said. “It was a good feeling to keep it that way. And mostly people picked up after themselves. But now we’re spread out around the country, and it’s harder to keep it.”
With the price down to $2.4 million, and with $1 million on the table from the NOAA grant, the land trust and the village agreed to combine efforts. The land trust is rallying to raise $510,000 for the purchase, long-term care and project management. The village has committed to coming up with $1 million, which it hopes to get through reimbursement from Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
“There’s risk, but it’s taking a chance to do the right thing,” said Chad Kodanko, a Sister Bay trustee who lobbied hard for the purchase. “These are once-in-a-lifetime land grabs that you don’t often get a chance to protect these things forever.”
Kodanko said the village isn’t doing this just for Sister Bay.
“This doesn’t have a financial return for us, this is for all of Door County,” he said. “This place is special to a lot of people.”
Clay called it a rare opportunity to protect a place the public is passionate about preserving, while also protecting a unique geological formation.
“It’s a situation where the private property owner values preservation, where the local government sees the value for the community for years to come, and where the land trust sees it as a chance to work with public and private [entities] to protect iconic places by coming together,” he said.
The village will enter into a conservation easement with the land trust to ensure that the property will never be developed or divided.
“We work in this world of conservation land buying every day,” Clay said. “It’s really a great marriage between the village and us at the land trust.”
The agreement allows for some improvements to the property to ease public use, such as additional permeable parking, restrooms and trails to be managed by the village. It stipulates that no marina, large parking lot or pavilion may be built on the property.
Kodanko and Bhirdo stressed that there are no major plans for the property.
“It can stay in a truly natural state if the village chooses,” Bhirdo said.
“In this case,” Kodanko said, “If we do nothing, that will be doing a lot.”
The Door County Land Trust is seeking donations for the $500,000 it needs to raise to complete the purchase. To learn more about the project or contribute, visit DoorCountyLandTrust.org/pebblebeach
The Original Sister Bay Settlement
Few know it, but Pebble Beach and Little Sister Bay was the home of the original Sister Bay settlement. Ole Lindem purchased property there in 1854 and opened a blacksmith shop. A store and saloon followed, and a pier was built in 1857.
But hopes for a thriving settlement there were dashed when a ship arrived in 1865 carrying a crew suffering from diptheria. Just a single crew member survived, and Little Sister Cemetery was created to bury the dead.
After the tragedy, settlers turned their eyes north to what is now known as Sister Bay. The Village of Sister Bay was incorporated in 1912 with a board of trustees made up of Frank Bunda, Charles Kellstrom, Ole Erickson, Ed Koessl Sr., Adolph Roeser, Matt Roeser and John Pahl.
The eighth generation of the Lindem family still vacations in cottages on the south end of Pebble Beach.