The owner of the nearby Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run properties has sought to have Sheboygan, Wis. annex 250 acres from the adjoining town of Wilson for the new course. Wilson had challenged the plan and town officials say that allowing it “makes a mockery of Wisconsin’s annexation laws.” There are still other pending cases surrounding the course’s development, with challenges relating to storm-drainage issues and the environmental impact on wetlands.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously ruled on February 14 that the city of Sheboygan, Wis. can annex 250 acres of land in the town of Wilson, where Kohler Co. hopes to build a world championship golf course along the Lake Michigan shoreline, The Sheboygan Press reported. Kohler also owns the nearby Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run club and golf course properties.
“We have consistently given great weight to the desire of property owners to seek annexation in pursuit of their own perceived best interests,” a majority of the justices decided, The Press reported.
The town of Wilson had challenged a decision by Sheboygan County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Borowski that upheld the annexation, The Press reported. Town of Wilson attorneys argued that Kohler, a private manufacturer that is Sheboygan County’s largest employer, used “balloon on a string” tactics to annex the land, buying a thin strip of properties that connected the city of Sheboygan with property that was more than a mile away, all because it had the sense that town of Wilson officials were unlikely to approve a conditional use permit for the golf course.
According to the Supreme Court’s decision, by 2015, three of the five members of the Town Board were “known to oppose the development.”
In a statement issued on the 14th, John Ehmann, a chairperson for the town’s Board, said the Supreme Court’s decision was “disappointing” and “makes a mockery of Wisconsin’s annexation laws,” The Press reported.
“Moving forward, we hope the city of Sheboygan will develop the land responsibly and in accordance with their own ordinances, by taking seriously the environmental and other impacts to the subject property and surrounding town residents,” Ehmann wrote
There are still other pending cases surrounding the proposed course, The Press reported. A local nonprofit, Friends of the Black River Forest, is challenging the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s decision to give Kohler permits for wetland filling and storm drainage, and to transfer public land—different land than what was annexed by the city of Sheboygan—in the hands of a private owner.
Two of those cases—the wetland filling permit and the transfer of public land — are open in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, The Press reported. The storm drainage permit is open in the Sheboygan County Circuit Court.
The town of Wilson case began in 2014, when Kohler Co. initiated a conditional-use permit with the town to develop a new golf course, The Press reported. While the town was awaiting completion of the permit, the city of Sheboygan annexed approximately 250 acres of the land in the town that Kohler owns. According to the decision, the city had previous interest in the land for future expansion and development, as part of its 2011 Comprehensive Plan.
The annexed land will allow the city more land to address its “substantial need for housing,” the decision said.
To assess the validity of an annexation, courts apply something called “the rule of reason,” The Press reported. This is a set of three requirements stating that the annexation can’t be an arbitrary shape, must have some future need, and can’t constitute an “abuse of discretion.”
The Supreme Court ruled that this case satisfies all three prongs of the rule of reason, The Press reported.
Kohler purchased several properties within the area of land that connected Sheboygan to the proposed “world championship golf course,” The Press reported. The border between the city and a touching parcel that Kohler purchased is approximately 650 feet wide. According to the decision, this satisfies the contiguity requirement.
The town cited a case between the town of Mount Pleasant and the city of Racine as precedent for insufficient contiguity in this case, The Press reported. The Mount Pleasant case referenced five out-of-state cases with voided annexations because of a border of less than 100 feet.
“We decline to define contiguity using a numerical threshold,” the Supreme Court’s decision said.
The annexed territory had a population of nine people —six adults and three children, The Press reported. Kohler obtained five signatures from owners in support of the annexation.
The town argued that the annexation includes a large amount of non-assessed land, so Kohler should calculate the number of signatures needed based on acreage of the land rather than number of residents, The Press reported. The Supreme Court said that is a policy argument and “has no support in the statutory language.”
Sitting along the lakeshore and next to the Kohler-Andrae State Park, the land has been preserved as a forest and wildlife refuge since about 1927, The Press reported.
Back around 2011, Kohler told the town it wanted to turn that land into something called a “tented forest,” which would be an upscale but low-intensity campsite, The Press reported. But in 2014, while Kohler’s proposal for the tented forest was pending, it told the town it wasn’t interested in that project anymore and wanted to develop a golf course instead. That March, the town received an initial, incomplete application for a conditional-use permit for the course.
After informing the public of the new proposal, the town and Kohler agreed in July 2014 to an indefinite extension for Kohler to complete environmental and other studies necessary for the permit application, The Press reported. As of June 2016, the permit application still was incomplete. In February 2017, Kohler’s attorney informed the town’s board chairman that Kohler was ready to complete its application to the Department of Natural Resources by March or April of that year. The town was still waiting come April.
On April 28, 2017, without completing the conditional use permit application or warning the town, Kohler published an annexation petition for Sheboygan to annex the land from the town of Wilson, The Press reported.
Earlier that year, Kohler employees and agents purchased two properties that lie between Kohler’s land in the town and the Sheboygan border, The Press reported.
On August 7, 2017, Sheboygan’s Common Council passed an ordinance annexing the land with an 11-5 vote. After Borowski dismissed the town of Wilson’s appeal, the town successfully petitioned to bypass the Court of Appeals.
Ehmann said earlier this week that some of the shoreline in the area for the proposed course has eroded from high-water levels, so Kohler may have to alter the proposed design for the new golf course, The Press reported. Pete Dye, who designed Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run and was designing this new course, died on January 9, at 94.
Todd Wolf, President of the city of Sheboygan’s Common Council, was among the votes in August 2017 to annex the land, The Press reported. “Whether we believe we need another golf course or not, it’s up to the owner,” Wolf said.
Wilson Town Board Supervisor Brian Hoffmann said that Kohler said it wanted to work with Sheboygan instead, because it believed that city could better serve water and fire protection needs, The Press reported.
“But the town of Wilson Fire Department is right next door,” Hoffmann noted.
Wolf said Sheboygan offers more flexibility in providing resources and that the town of Wilson already gets sewer service Sheboygan, The Press reported.
Resources aside, Hoffmann said Kohler had other concerns with the town of Wilson, The Press reported. “They felt the town was going to say no, but we never even had the chance to,” he said.
He’s not sure why Kohler felt that way, he added, because he said the Board was negotiating with the company “in good faith” and just waiting to receive all of the information and a completed permit application.
Hoffmann, who has served on the Wilson town board for 18 years, learned of the annexation by reading about it in the newspaper, and described it as a “total shock,” The Press reported.