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July 31, 2012 | 04:43 PM
In 1975, Walworth County Circuit Judge Erwin Zastrow ruled that the path around Geneva Lake is to remain open to the public for residents to hike and bicycle around the lake.

Per the judge's decision, the path, which crosses private properties along the lake, remains open to the public. Although not so much for bicycles.

Since the court case, the town of Linn and the village of Williams Bay have made it illegal to ride bikes on the lake path.

For good measure, the two communities also ban motorized vehicles and horses, said David B. Williams. Williams, the municipal judge in Williams Bay, said he is also familiar with the ordinance in Linn.

The issue came up in a Lake Geneva Regional News story about Rory and Randy Shine, who want to post mile markers on the path so "hikers and bikers" know where they are in relation to the lake communities.

The word "bikers" is apparently a trip wire for some residents, and the Regional News received e-mails from members of the Geneva Lake Association.

Williams is also a member of the Geneva Lake Association.

Formed in 1935, the association describes itself on its website as "persons interested in enhancing the conservation, preservation, environmental integrity and general welfare of Geneva Lake and its surrounding area."

Williams pointed out that bicyles are now legally prohibited from about three-fourths of the lake path.

More than half of the 21.6-mile lakeside path is in the town of Linn on both the north and south shores.

Adding in Williams Bay's share of the path probably means that bikes are banned on more than 75 percent of the length of the lakeshore path, Williams said. He added that some property owners in Linn and Williams Bay probably don't realize they can call the police when bicyclists ride past their properties.

Despite the ordinances, however, town of Linn Police Chief Mark Cates said he can't recall the last time police cited anyone for riding a bike on the lake path.

Williams said he's also not seen a ticket issued for bicycling along the path in Williams Bay, either.

Helping the local ordinances control bicycle riding is the path's topography.

The quality of the path varies. Some lengths along the south shore are paved and clearly marked. Some stretches are nothing more than dirt and grass. Some stretches are nearly impassible due to erosion or neglect.

And some sections of the path are too steep or just too rough for bicycles, Williams said.

If bicyclists insist on using the path, they had best stick to the 25 percent of the path on which, if bikes are not welcomed, they are at least tolerated.

Lake Geneva bans only motorized vehicles from the path, according to Police Chief Mike Rasmussen.

Bicycles are not banned. In fact, police officers on bicycle often patrol the path, Rasmussen said.

And Fontana has no ordinances whatsoever governing the lake path.

Williams said a number of lakeside property owners don't like bicycles crossing their property for safety and liability issues, as well as just quiet enjoyment of their piece of the lakefront.

Some are also probably tired of the seemingly endless stream of strangers traipsing through their front or back yards on that two-foot wide strip of pathway, he said

But there isn't anything they can do to stop that stream.

Local romantic history claims the lake path was created by Indian tribes who lived along Geneva Lake.

Since the 1830s, after the last of the local Potawatomie set out for reservations in Kansas, the path was used by the local laborers and servants who lived in Lake Geneva.

Until the construction of roads and highways in the early 20th Century, the wealthier lakeside homeowners kept the path open so their house and groundskeepers, and their neighbors' house and groundskeepers, could get to work.

The conventions of the 19th Century laid the groundwork for public-private tensions in the 20th Century.

In 1975, the city of Lake Geneva took John Bihlmire to circuit court. Bihlmire owned a restaurant in the Stone Manor. He installed a fence that blocked the path.

Pedestrians didn't accept that, tearing down sections of the fence to get to the beach at Button's Bay, at Big Foot Beach State Park.

The city took the case on behalf of its residents.

Bihlmire, who represented himself in court, said he put the fence up nine years prior after buying the property through a tax sale by the county,

But the city called 12 witnesses who testified that the previous Stone Manor owners had left the path unobstructed.

Patrick Button, then 77, testified that his grandfather, who had settled in the area in 1848, told him the path around the lake was part of a treaty between the local Indians the territorial government, before Wisconsin was a state.

Zastrow ruled that the lakeshore path was acquired by the public through common law dedication by the former owners of the path who did not block access to the path, implying that they were intending to dedicate it to the public.

Williams said the Geneva Lake Association has posted about two dozen signs along the lake path laying out the rules for co-existence between the path hikers and the property owners.

The signs read:

You are invited to walk along the lakeshore path and enjoy the natural beauty of the Geneva Lake shoreline.

You are entering on private property, so please observe the following:

Stay on the lakeshore path or trail.

Keep pets on a leash.

Do not remove plants or other natural materials.

To preserve these private grounds and to protect the environment,

Please do not use bicycles on the path.

Motorized vehicles are not permitted.

Picnicking, swimming, fishing, hunting, fires, sports activities and use of radios are prohibited.

Williams said the association is planning on updating the signs and personalizing them, so path hikers know what association, subdivision or property owner has posted the sign.


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