Sister Bay, Liberty Grove Settle Treatment-Plant Dispute

A long-running dispute between two Northern Door municipalities has finally been resolved. 

The Village of Sister Bay and the Town of Liberty Grove have reached a settlement agreement regarding ownership and operations of the Sister Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant. Though the two communities have long cooperated in operating the library and fire department, they have been battling over ownership of the treatment plant for years. 

The settlement makes it clear that Sister Bay controls full ownership of the plant and that the plant will continue to serve Liberty Grove Sanitary District No. 1. Sister Bay agreed to pay Liberty Grove $250,000 to buy out the town’s capacity in the plant, as well as $115,534 for Liberty Grove’s portion of the sale of the Larson property. 

We were looking at another five or six years before it got settled. Enough was enough.

John Lowry, Liberty Grove town chair

That property, located in Ellison Bay, was purchased with funds from both municipalities and grant money from the Department of Natural Resources in 1991. It was intended to be used to spread sludge left over from wastewater treatment. Sludge was never spread there, and technological advances later made sludge-spreading sites obsolete. In 2012, the village sold the piece of land for $250,000.

“This makes operations very black and white,” said Liberty Grove Administrator Bud Kalms. 

Liberty Grove Town Chair John Lowry said the settlement wasn’t exactly what either side wanted, but it was time to put the issue to rest. 

“I think we got to the point where there was a lot of give and take, and it became pretty evident that it was going to go back to the court, and no matter what the court decided, it would be appealed,” Lowry said. “We were looking at another five or six years before it got settled. Enough was enough.”

Sister Bay constructed the plant in 1988, and the two municipalities entered into an intergovernmental agreement to operate it to serve the entire Village of Sister Bay, the Town of Liberty Grove and Liberty Grove Sanitary District No. 1.

Town representatives conceded that the original agreement states Sister Bay as the owner, but the town received an opinion from an attorney in 2006 stating the town had a case for ownership based on its $1.7 million in investments in the plant. 

The intergovernmental agreement expired in 2008, and since then, the two municipalities have not been able to settle the ownership issue. The town and village discussed a new agreement through a negotiating committee made up of representatives from both municipalities, and each community suggested a mediator at different times, only for the other to refuse. 

In 2017, the Village of Sister Bay began the process for a declaratory judgment on ownership of the Sister Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant against the Town of Liberty Grove. The town countered with legal action of its own, asking the court to determine whether and to what extent it had an ownership interest in the plant and related facilities, as well as other remedies.

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