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Groups urge Evers to block land exchange for proposed golf course along Lake Michigan

Environmental advocates want Evers to send the land swap back to the Natural Resources Board for further review

Kohler-Andrae State Park
Kohler-Andrae State Park near Sheboygan. Mike & Molly Ⓥ (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Groups are urging Gov. Tony Evers to block a proposed land swap between the state and Kohler Company for construction of a luxury golf course along Lake Michigan, fearing it sets a bad precedent for state parks.

The Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Black River Forest want Evers to prevent the transfer of nearly 5 acres of Kohler-Andrae State Park and a roughly 2-acre easement in exchange for 9.5 acres of Kohler Company property.

The Friends group has argued the land swap would harm public access, wildlife habitat, and a rare dune system and wetlands within the park. Mary Faydash, president of the Friends group, said the exchange violated rules over selling state park property.

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“If this agreement stays in place, and Gov. Evers goes out of office, it is very possible that this agreement can be used as precedent for other governors to sell off or trade our state park lands,” Faydash said.

An Evers spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment on the groups’ request Monday.

Faydash and the Sierra Club said the land swap should be sent back to the Natural Resources Board for further review. Under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, the policy-making board for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources signed off on the land exchange in 2018. Last year, a conservative majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the Friends group couldn’t challenge the decision to exchange land for the project. The Associated Press reported that the court found state law doesn’t protect public use of the park.

Kohler, which is more widely known for making bathroom fixtures, wants to build its fifth “world class” golf course on 247 acres owned by the company. The proposed 18-hole course would include plans for up to a 16,000-square-foot clubhouse, 22,000-square-foot maintenance facility, an irrigation pond and an entrance road. The course would be rated in the top 50 golf courses worldwide, according to the project’s environmental impact statement. The company already owns and operates four courses at Black Wolf Run and Whistling Straits in Sheboygan County. Whistling Straits hosted the Ryder Cup in 2021.

In an emailed statement, Kohler Company said the project is anticipated to create more than 200 jobs. The project is also anticipated to generate a $21 million annual economic impact on Sheboygan County residents and businesses.

“We are committed to creating a world-class golf course that respects the property’s natural character and surrounding community and opens private land to the public for the first time,” the statement said. “Our company has an established track record of sound environmental stewardship with a commitment to following all applicable municipal, state and federal regulations. All along, our approach has been to avoid, minimize and mitigate potential impacts and to enhance adjacent park facilities.”

However, environmental advocates like Cassie Steiner with the Sierra Club said the land exchange is far from a fair trade. Steiner said the groups submitted three petitions to Evers, the DNR and Kohler Company with almost 30,000 signatures seeking to block the land swap.

“This is an important stopover area for migratory birds. There are also a number of endangered reptile species and plant species that rely on this ecosystem,” Steiner, the group’s senior campaign coordinator, said. “What’s been swapped does not have the same quality for the wildlife that is in the area.”

More than 150 bird species have been known to use the area. Kohler-Andrae State Park is home to “critically imperiled” interdunal wetlands that occur at less than a handful of sites in the state, as well as five acres of Great Lakes Ridge and Swale wetlands on the eastern edge of the Kohler property. The sand dunes are critical for lessening erosion and the wetlands support rare plant communities. The state’s environmental review found plans to build the course are expected to reduce habitat for a number of species including amphibians, reptiles and birds.

In 2018, Wisconsin Watch reported DNR staff felt pressured to sign off on a wetlands permit for the project. An administrative law judge revoked that permit in 2019. Kohler appealed the decision. In 2021, a Sheboygan County judge ruled that the permit can’t be reinstated. Kohler now wants a state appeals court panel to reverse that decision, and a ruling is still pending.

The DNR declined to comment on pending litigation.

Kohler-Andrae State Park, including the Kohler Park Dunes State Natural Area, spans nearly 1,000 acres and more than two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. The park sees around 400,000 visitors each year.