Judge rejects Wisconsin DNR approval of luxurious course


Kohler Co. is proposing a golf course on land currently not open to public use. The parcel along Lake Michigan lies just north of Kohler-Andrae State Park. A judge on Friday said the Department of Natural Resources did not follow proper steps when it approved a key wetland permit. (Photo: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel files)

A state administrative law judge has rejected a Department of Natural Resources decision approving a key environmental permit for a luxury golf course by the Kohler Co. on the shore of Lake Michigan in Sheboygan County.

The decision, issued on Friday, is a blow to Executive Chairman Herbert V. Kohler Jr. and his plans to develop the company’s latest shoreline course — but a win for a grassroots group that questioned the ecological impact of the project from the start.

The Friends of the Black River Forest had challenged a 2018 DNR decision that found the loss of just under 4 acres of sensitive wetlands and shoreline forest was acceptable under state law, if protective steps were taken. 

But Administrative Law Judge Mark F. Kaiser said the agency failed to follow state requirements for projects involving wetlands loss, and that the steps taken by Kohler to assuage the losses were inadequate. 

The judge also found that in some cases the DNR lacked adequate information involving hydrology and pesticides to grant the permit on the 247-acre parcel. 

A lawyer for the Friends of the Black River Forest applauded the decision. “The golf course would be a major development on an extraordinarily sensitive site,” said Christa Westerberg in a statement. “The evidence simply did not support granting a permit in this case.” 

A spokesman for Kohler said the company disagreed with the decision and plans to appeal. 

“We believe the facts and the law show that the wetland permit should have been upheld,” Dirk Willis, director of golf in the hospitality and real estate group of Kohler, said in a statement.

“The DNR staff put a lot of scrutiny into our wetland application, including nearly three years of analysis, many public meetings, extensive public commentary, and a detailed and comprehensive environmental impact review of our project.”

The course would be the third luxurious golf destination in the Sheboygan area. Kohler’s Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits have hosted major golf tournaments over the years, including the 2015 PGA championship at Whistling Straits.

The case was closely watched, with opponents claiming political pressure was at play in the DNR when it was under the management of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. 

RELATED: Opponents of Kohler golf course claim Wisconsin DNR caved to political pressure

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During a five-day hearing, a wetlands expert who worked on the project before retiring testified that Kohler’s project would have the most significant harmful impact of any she reviewed in 37 years at the DNR. 

Pat Trochlell also told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting in a story published in November that superiors at the agency said the permit had to be approved. 

DNR officials told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time that no such pressure was applied. 

Spokesman Andrew Savagian said Monday in a statement that technical and legal staff were reviewing the ruling. “We will abide by the ALJ decision, he said. “Other parties will likely evaluate their legal options.”

In his ruling, Kaiser did not address issues of political influence and instead focused on where the agency’s approval fell short, and the impact the course would have on wetlands, waterways and forestland just north of Kohler-Andrae State Park. 

Examples: Rare ridge and swale wetlands along the shoreline would be filled. Roughly half the forest on the property, which has not been logged in 150 years, would be cut down. 

“The (DNR) may be confident that Kohler’s management plans will ultimately be sufficient to protect the wetlands; however, the department should be making its determinations based on completed plans, not trusting that management plans that will be prepared will adequately protect groundwater and wetlands,” Kaiser said. 

“Once the golf course is constructed, the adverse impacts will be permanent and irreversible.” 

 

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