Sister Bay Ice Rink Improvements Stuck in Neutral

Plans to raise funds to expand and improve the Theresa K. Hilander Ice Rink in Sister Bay have been put on hold because of a property conflict between the village of Sister Bay and the town of Liberty Grove.

Supporters of the rink said they are prepared to begin fundraising to lay down a permanent concrete surface, boards and purchase a tractor to maintain the ice for the rink, but cannot proceed because they don’t have clear title to the land it sits on.

“We presented our proposal to the village,” TKH president Mike Kahr said. “They said they supported it, but they had to settle a dispute over the land with Liberty Grove first.”

The dispute stems from the relocation of the rink in 2003, when the village moved its recreational facilities from their location on Park Lane to the present location on Autumn Ct. to make way for the village’s new fire station. To do so, the village purchased land adjacent to the Joint Sanitary District it operates with Liberty Grove.

Some of the new recreation facilities, including the rink, were built on Joint Sanitary District land, which had been set aside for utility expansion, without Liberty Grove approval, according to town chairman Charlie Most.

“The village used land owned by the utility, and didn’t ask for permission from the utility or Liberty Grove,” said Liberty Grove town chairman Charlie Most. “We would like to see the utility compensated, with the village either buying the land or starting a fund for the utility to buy land later for expansion.”

Kahr expressed frustration with the development.

“I don’t see why none of this came up before the rink was moved,” he said. “Now we’re stuck because we want to be sure we have clear title to the land before we go asking people for money to improve the rink.”

Most said the issue was first raised at a utilities committee meeting in April of 2004, despite numerous public meetings and discussion prior to construction of the park.

Brian Fitzgerald, one of the rink’s founders and volunteers, is frustrated as well.

“I’d just like to know why it is at this point now,” he said. “It’s disappointing that with all of those meetings everything wasn’t all worked out.”

Sister Bay village board members and administrator Bob Kufrin could not comment specifically on the matter because the Board of Trustees is currently discussing the issue in closed session.

Those associated with the rink describe the impasse as yet another in a series of unnecessary frustrations for an organization considered a vital part of the community.

Fitzgerald said the first rink, built almost 10 years ago, took nearly three years to complete. The village of Sister Bay gave rink organizers permission to use the land on Park Lane, and numerous local tradesman donated time and materials to the project, which included the construction of a warming house, boards and the rink.

TKH quickly became a focal point of winter activity in Sister Bay, aided by the formation of the Door County Broomball League. The coed league grew to involve more than 80 participants each Wednesday night in the winter months, many of whom gather at the rink or area taverns before and after games.

“Part of the reward of giving your time and effort was knowing that it was going to be here forever,” Fitzgerald said. “I had just moved here at the time, and that process just gave me a great sense of community. It’s one of my proudest moments here.”

But just a few years later, the village decided the land was needed for the fire station, a decision that didn’t sit well with many who had participated in building or used the facility. Concerns were only appeased by assurances that the village would construct a new rink with the same features as the original.

“Basically the agreement was that the village would replace in kind, which for the most part they’ve done,” Fitzgerald said.

With the most recent hurdles, TKH has looked into possible sites in other villages, should Sister Bay fall through. But Fitzgerald said they do feel a sense of loyalty to Sister Bay, and would prefer not to move again.

TKH relies heavily on a group of dedicated volunteers who devote hundreds of hours to the facility each year. Fitzgerald said the improvements they want to make would reduce the workload significantly.

“The way it’s done now, and has been done to this point, it just requires too much maintenance,” he said. “The rink now couldn’t go on without the volunteers. With the improvements you would save hundreds of volunteer hours that go into setting up the boards, flooding the rink, maintaining the ice. This could become a break-even rink.”

Fitzgerald said the concrete surface would make the ice usable for almost six more weeks most winters. This year the Door County Broomball League was unable to begin their season until January 11 because the ice was not ready, and in other years, the league has started play late or ended early due to the lack of ice.

“Better facilities would allow us to go from about the first week of December through the second or third week of March,” Fitzgerald said. “The concrete would be an opaque, level, non-porous surface that’s better for ice and could be used for a basketball court in the off-season and incorporated into the street course for the proposed skate-park.”

Kahr said other improvements could be made as well.

“I’d like to see some berms with trees to cut down on wind,” he said. “Maybe a sledding hill. We can make it better.”

All of the improvements would cost about $160,000, Fitzgerald estimated, which they plan on raising from private donations. He said he thought the work could be achieved by late fall of 2006, but the conflict between Sister Bay and Liberty Grove puts that timetable at risk.

“It’s frustrating,” Fitzgerald said. “It seems the village board is behind it, but they can’t say yes because we don’t have the right to build on that land right now.”

Fitzgerald said he had the sense Liberty Grove felt the rink was forced upon them, and Most seemed to agree.

“Sister Bay acted unilaterally when they built it there, without consulting Liberty Grove or the utilities commission,” Most said. “We’re caught up on the principle of it.”

But Fitzgerald said the rink is not merely a Sister Bay entity.

“A lot of the work for the original rink came from Liberty Grove residents, and a lot of the users are Liberty Grove residents,” Fitzgerald said.

Most and Kufrin said they expect a resolution soon, but gave no details on what it might be.

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