Thinking Ahead on the Gills Rock Waterfront

In recent years Door County residents and visitors have watched as prime pieces of property have increasingly been developed into condominiums. The pace has quickened to the point that many in the community are resigned to the notion that the development of even the peninsula’s most treasured spots is inevitable.

In the face of this prospect, a group of Gills Rock waterfront property owners have come together to pursue an alternative to the high-density developments that have become so common. In fact, the preliminary proposal would include no condominium development on the property at all.

The subject of the proposal is a series of properties highlighted by Weborg’s Dock, which combine for almost 960 continuous feet of shoreline frontage. The owners of the properties have agreed to pursue the idea of selling the land to the town to build a marina and park.

They asked Mike Kahr, of Death’s Door Marine, to come up with a conceptual plan for the project, which he presented to the town board October 31st. That preliminary plan would add a break-wall, 100-slip marina, boardwalk and park structures, as well as the relocation of the Door County Maritime Museum to the property while retaining the commercial fishing facilities.

Though the properties are controlled by no less than 11 people, one of the primary property owners, Jeff Weborg, said all have agreed to pursue the project if the town shows interest.

“We would like to get some indication from the town that they’re willing to seriously consider this,” Weborg said.

Weborg said the he has been contacted by interested developers about the property, though he and his neighbors are not looking to do anything in the immediate future.

“We’re not trying to hold a hammer over the town’s head,” Weborg said. “We’re just putting this on the table, knowing that five years or so from now we may be looking to sell this property, and we would like to see the fishing atmosphere retained.”

Kahr, a member of the Liberty Grove Planning Commission, believes a variety of state and federal funding sources may be available for such a project, citing grant programs for sport fisherman, from the Waterway Commission, and stewardship funds.

Liberty Grove Town Board Chairman Charlie Most said the plan as presented is too preliminary for the town to focus resources on at the moment.

“As more due diligence is done, it’s something we would like to look into,” Most said. “There’s a lot more work to go on it. There’s a lot of land acquisition that would have to take place, and the scale of the project might be beyond the town’s ability to handle.”

Most also said there have been previous problems combining Waterway Commission funds with commercial operations. The property owners have not set an asking price for the land and admitted the plan was in its initial stages, but a number of Gills Rock residents said they would like to see the town take more interest in the project.

Michael DiIulio manages Dockside Lodging and Rental, a property adjacent to those in the plan.

“From what I understand, these property owners aren’t giving the town an ultimatum,” DiIulio said. “But they know that at some point someone’s going to come along and offer a lot of money and decide they want the dreaded condo thing. Then everyone’s going to be up in arms saying, ‘you can’t destroy that.’ Well, here’s a chance to save it all now.”

DiIulio admitted there were many questions, such as wastewater issues and money for the land acquisition.

“There are definitely some sticking points, but I feel like the town should definitely look into it a little deeper than they have,” he said.

In a letter to the town board dated Oct. 27th, Larry and Jane Nelson, who own one of the parcels included in the plan, urged town officials to think long-term.

“You need to not only think of this pristine and historic area now,” they wrote. “But roll the clock ahead 50 or more years and [consider] what the purchase of this property will mean then. Preserving, now, property that could otherwise hold more condominiums, is of prime importance for future generations.”

DiIulio said the Gills Rock project would benefit Northern Door businesses.

“There’s over 900 feet of shoreline for sale there,” he said. “There’s nowhere else I know of where you’ll find that on Lake Michigan. There isn’t a better place for a marina like this, and I think it would be a real draw to the northern part of the county.”

Local artist Charles Peterson spoke of the preservation value of the proposal.

“From a selfish point of view, I like it because it preserves these structures that I’ve been making use of for the past 32 years,” he said. “I’d certainly hate to see them go.”

He said buildings like those at Weborg’s Dock serve a greater purpose.

“For artists and tourists, those buildings are the quiet evidence of what life was like in Door County before we began ruining it,” Peterson said. “When they’re gone, they’re not coming back.”

At the Oct. 31st presentation of the plan, some expressed qualms about combining the commercial fishing aspect with pleasure boaters, citing worries about seagull droppings. DiIulio said he felt the two can, and should, co-exist.

“During the season, a day doesn’t go by that people don’t ask us about the fishermen and the buildings over there,” he said. “It’s got to be one of the most photographed and painted spots in the county. The commercial fishing is a tourist draw.”

Karen Raymore, Executive Director of the Door County Chamber of Commerce, agreed.

“We have three truly distinctive aspects here – our geography, our arts and culture, and our people,” she said. “That’s what makes us different than everybody else. It’s important to sustain these very beautiful images. We have to do everything we can to preserve those places that inspire artists.”