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June 10, 2014 | 04:34 PM
FONTANA — It may only be 21 miles long, but the Geneva Lake Shore Path is reaching around the world.

UW Oshkosh sociology professor Paul Van Auken started studying usage and legalities of the shore path last summer.

He sent residents to an online survey and is still collecting data from the results.

In March, he presented some of his preliminary findings at a workshop in Norway.

Van Auken said he has collaborated with Norwegian scholars for a decade.

“In my dissertation, I compared part of Wisconsin to part of Norway,” he said in an interview last summer.

“In Norway, that’s the rule everywhere. Shorelines are open to anyone. It doesn’t matter whose property it is.”

The public shore path is an anomaly in the United States, he said.

Johan Fredrik Rye, a collaborator on the project, organized the workshop in March and invited Van Auken.

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“(Rye) was second author on one of the papers that came out of my dissertation ... about issues similar to the ones we’re exploring in Geneva Lake,” Van Auken said.

“(The conference was) about 20 people who all submitted and read each other’s papers.”

Van Auken wants to research the legal history of the path and find out how different stakeholders of the path, including property owners, view its shared use.

“Through our eventual analysis ... we hope to shed light on these questions and produce data that might be useful to other communities, including Norwegian communities that are experiencing a shift to more American ways of viewing property from one that has historically been more communal and public in nature,” Van Auken’s preliminary report states.

Right of way?

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In 2013, Van Auken sent post cards to 3,000 residents within the four communities surrounding Geneva Lake.

He’s collected 455 complete survey responses.

In his report, Van Auken quotes a Regional News article on the legal basis for the shore path.

However, he states that article is slightly misleading.

The July 31, 2012, article states that a 1975 Circuit Court ruling states that the shore path is to remain open to the public.

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Van Auken says the ruling only refers to the particular property in question, that is Stone Manor.

Quoting from the 1975 ruling, Van Auken states in his report that “any declaration of rights as to the balance of the foot path as it extends around Lake Geneva would have no effect since the other property owners who land is crossed by the foot path are not parties to this action.”

According to Van Auken’s report, many survey takers thought there was a legal right-of-way for pedestrians around the lake.

One survey taker, though, called that idea an “urban legend.”

In an email June 6, Van Auken said the legal standing is murky best.

“Clearer understanding of it being private property, which the signs around the lake clearly state, may lead to greater care by users of it,” he said.

“Further, and probably more importantly, my research so far, as detailed in the preliminary report, clearly shows very strong support for the path, even amongst landowners and those with private access to the shore, who are only slightly less likely to support it in the survey ... the fact that many landowners spend a good deal of time and presumably some (money) in maintaining the path, (is a clear) indicator of general support for the path.”

Community

Along with the legal aspect, Van Auken discusses the way community has developed around a love of the shore path.

A community, Van Auken said, is a web of relationships that developed through a process of repeated social interaction, which is shaped by the landscape.

“(A) key to building community, then, is creating spaces and activities that facilitate such interaction,” he writes in the report. “The Geneva Lake Shore Path and related amenities have the potential to be such places.”

Van Auken said building a community gives residents the ability to address local problems, such as racial exclusion, crime rates and sustainability. Later in the report, Van Auken states that communities may develop for preservation goals.

“An overarching goal of the place interest cluster is to restrict development,” he said. “The preservation of land and historical buildings may help to ‘produce a thoroughly gentrified, affluent neighborhood that is eventually devoid of all who are different than themselves.’ ... This may not be their intent, (but) the defense of amenity by those with primarily place interests can jeopardize the security of those with community interests.”

Because of focus on preserving the path, Van Auken said other local goals can be pushed aside. The shore path’s preservation “at least helps to preserve public access to otherwise highly gentrified areas.”

The interviews

At the end of the survey, Van Auken asked respondents if they were willing to complete an interview regarding their experience with the shore path.

He asked those willing to do an interview to take up to 15 photos that describe the shore path in five different ways: usage, recent changes, valuable features, concerns and the overall essence. Van Auken has conducted six interviews — four for residents in Lake Geneva, one in Linn and one in Fontana.

At the end of the report, Van Auken said that much of his data from the photos and interviews was not yet incorporated in the report.

The survey is still open for responses, and Van Auken said he’s specifically looking for people who are willing to do interviews about their experience on the shore path.

Access the survey at http://tinyurl.com/ShorePath.

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