Kohler Golf Course Plan Dealt Legal Setback

In another legal setback for Kohler Company’s proposed fifth golf course in Sheboygan County, Judge Edward Stengel ruled last Friday that the wetland fill permit granted to the company in 2018 by the Wisconsin DNR cannot be reinstated. The permit was granted under then-secretary Cathy Stepp, a Scott Walker appointee.

Judge Stengel’s ruling upholds a 2019 decision by an administrative law judge that the permit was not in compliance with state statutes and would cause significant environmental damage.

In dismissing Kohler’s case, Judge Stengel’s long-awaited 38-page ruling stated that “the original decision to issue the wetland permit was not based on scientific facts and definitive plans, but speculation and promises.”

The grassroots activist group Friends of the Black River Forest quickly declared victory. Friends spokesperson Mary Faydash said, “This decision affirms what [we have] been saying since the DNR issued the wetland fill permit. The DNR proceeded with the permit despite factual inconsistencies and incomplete information.” FBRF has opposed Kohler’s golf course plans since 2014, funding its legal challenges of the seven-billion-dollar company’s plan with brat fries, bake sales, and a GoFundMe page.

Kohler’s plan for the course includes permanent alterations to Kohler-Andrae State Park, the fourth most-visited state park in Wisconsin. The company wants to build a four-lane road plus a rotary through the park’s entrance to route visitors to the proposed golf course and construct a 22,000 sq. ft. maintenance facility on an area inside the park that is now a wetland. The golf course itself would be built on 247 acres Kohler owns north of the park.

The DNR’s Migratory Bird Report refers to the area as a single site, Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore, and identifies it as a priority stopover site for the “abundance of migratory birds” who visit in both spring and fall. “More than 10,000 waterfowl and landbirds and 1,000 raptors and waterbirds are estimated to use the site annually,” the report says, “including 35 species of Greatest Conservation Need.”

The dunal and ridge-and-swale wetlands found at Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore are considered one of the rarest ecosystems in Wisconsin. However, much of the Kohler land is wooded. These woodlands constitute the largest stand of old growth forest on the Lake Michigan shore. Kohler’s plan calls for clear-cutting 50-60% of the forest on the property, including “nearly untouched, mature woodlands of white pine, beech, and rare Lake Michigan hardwood habitat,” said naturalist Jim Buchholz, who served as park superintendent at Kohler-Andrae for more than 25 years.

The Sheboygan Plan Commission granted a conditional use permit to Kohler last December. Among the conditions was that Kohler’s wetland fill permit be re-instated and all litigation resolved.

At the Plan Commission meeting, Kohler VP of global golf Dirk Willis spoke in glowing terms about the “prestige” a new golf course would bring to the area and emphasized that the company’s proposed course would be open to the public. At Kohler’s Whistling Straits golf course, located only 10 miles north of the proposed course on Lake Michigan, a day of golf can cost up to $500.

Willis also assured the Plan Commission that the design of Kohler’s proposed golf course is “minimalist” in its environmental impact and that 96% of the land would be “preserved.”

Though it seems likely that Kohler will appeal Judge Stengel’s decision, he is the latest jurist to cast serious doubt on the company’s claims.

RT Both/June 2, 2021

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