When Rebecca Dallet won a ten-year term to the State Supreme Court in April 2018, it was heralded as an overwhelming victory for a candidate with strong support from Wisconsin liberals. Dallet’s TV ad campaign positioned her as the “anti-Trump” candidate. She featured him in ads asserting that “our values are under attack,” and inevitably her victory was seen as a litmus test on the Trump presidency.
But campaigns are one thing and the business of being a Supreme Court Justice in Wisconsin is apparently another.
On February 14, the Sheboygan Press reported that the State Supreme Court of Wisconsin had given Kohler Company a very special Valentine’s present. The largest employer in Sheboygan County, and a company with an international reach, received a favorable decision from the court that moves it one step closer to building a championship golf course north of Kohler-Andrae State Park – using the park’s land to build an entrance and a maintenance facility and destroying a rare ecosystem in the process.
Justice Dallet not only voted with the majority, she wrote the decision that gave the city of Sheboygan the right to annex 247acres from the Town of Wilson, land that belongs to Kohler and on which Kohler wants to build its proposed Pete-Dye designed, environmentally devastating golf course.
This is only one court decision in the whole squawk (Friends of the Black River Forest has a couple of legal actions going in Circuit Court and with the DNR trying to stop Kohler), but it is revealing. The Town of Wilson opposed Kohler’s golf course plan because of the impact it would have on property owners in the Black River neighborhood, who value their land, their privacy, and their woods.
Attorneys for the Town of Wilson said Kohler had used what is known as “balloon-string” tactics, buying a thin strip of property that connected the land to the city of Sheboygan, which is likely to approve the permit for the golf course, to justify the annexation. According to the Sheboygan Press, 3 out of 5 Town of Wilson board members opposed it.
John Ehmann, the Town of Wilson board chairman, said he hoped the “city of Sheboygan will develop the land responsibly . . . by taking seriously the environmental and other impacts” to the property itself, which includes the ridge and swale wetland Kohler wants to replace with greens and golf carts, as well as “surrounding town residents” who are likely to be impacted by the Kohler development as it disturbs, not only a fragile Lake Michigan ecosystem but a crumbling and rapidly eroding shoreline.
Sheboygan Mayor Mike Vandersteen got close to what is likely to be the actual truth of the matter when he said the decision was “great news for the city” and that it didn’t “seem there’s any door open to reverse this.”
In other words, it’s party time.
Now Kohler is one step closer to bulldozing a globally rare wetland and destroying a state park by building a four-lane road right through the entrance and a 22,000 square foot maintenance facility on its land. All our state’s citizens are welcome at the new public course, says Kohler. This will enhance the park, not destroy it, says Kohler.
Yes, all are welcome who wish to pay the green fees, which can range from $180 to more than $200 for 18 holes, depending on the time of year. On top of that, there’s the $70 caddie fee ($50 gratuity suggested), based on current fees at nearby Kohler-owned Whistling Straits; golf cart rental fees – $40 and up; and the $90 club rental fees, if you didn’t bring your own.
But just based on the math, $300-$400 to enjoy a day of golf, the new and improved Kohler-Andrae State Park is not going to be attracting the same people it does now. The family with the state park sticker and the tent who just want to sit around a campfire roasting marshmallows after a hard day of hiking and bird watching are unlikely to partake. This is elite development.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision written by Dallet was based on the “rule of reason” – basically that, if it promotes the interest of the municipality seeking the annexation, it gets done. Ironically, the only justices who set the slightest objection to this notion were staunch conservatives Rebecca Bradley and Brian Hagedorn, both of whom voted with the majority but felt compelled to raise some issues. Bradley pointed out that this “rule of reason,” idea is not statutory, and Hagedorn noted that the “rule of reason” is a tricky one. What seems reasonable today may not be so reasonable tomorrow.
Exactly. The question is, once the wildlife is gone, replaced by sod, mowers, chemicals to keep the greens green, and a big old club house, with a few bunches of reeds popping out of a dune here and there for atmosphere and design detail, will the golf course plan still seem “reasonable”?
When Donald Trump purchased the Lowes Island Golf Club in 2009 and turned it into one of the Trump National private golf clubs, the “Trump Organization removed about 465 mature trees—including American elms, green ashes, and black locusts—along the water, exposing 1.5 miles of shoreline,” wrote Benjamin Freed in The Washingtonian five years after the purchase. “Without the trees, and their extensive root systems, acting as a buffer” the Potomac River receives “more runoff from farms and other nearby land, while the land around it suffers more topsoil erosion.”
Are these reasonable consequences when the devastation caused by development and a policy of unlimited growth are making a significant contribution to climate change? And is it reasonable to assume we can continue to open public lands to private development and still continue to enjoy the wilderness that was once our national heritage?
And exactly what are “our values,” the ones Dallet touted in her anti-Trump ads?
Based on this decision, I would say “our values” are two things. One, rich guys get whatever they want, no matter what it does to nature or the rights of smalltime property owners.
And the second fundamental value on display here is that a piece of land is just a hunk of unused space until you stick a development on it. The State Supreme Court decision written by Dallet describes the land simply as “247 acres of undeveloped land” that Kohler Co. has owned for 80 years.
Right there, in those words, you have the outcome of the court’s deliberations, even before a so-called decision was reached. It’s just “undeveloped land.” And undeveloped land is simply land that needs to be developed.
Like a lot of people, the Wisconsin Supreme Court doesn’t seem to get the connection between development and matters like climate change. It’s not just about lowering carbon emissions, it’s about preserving what we already have, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the life-sustaining necessities that are maintained by preserving wetlands and forests.
So in the end, Rebecca Dallet’s values are not so different from Trump’s after all. She may take a more civil tone, but she is a legal advocate for the same policies, placing the power of the State Supreme Court at the disposal of the destruction of vital natural resources.
And those are some highly questionable values.