ELKHORN — The proposed White River Park cleared more hurdles last week, and it appears more likely that the land, located on Sheridan Spring and Short roads in Lyons, will become a public park.
For months the county has debated how to handle some of the necessary requirements to secure a nearly $1 million grant from the DNR.
In order to receive a DNR stewardship grant, the county is required to allow hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking and cross country skiing.
After receiving the grant, supervisors expressed concerns that year-round, 24/7 hunting would disturb park neighbors and place park users in harm’s way.
However, some of those concerns were alleviated when the DNR said the county can create park hours, which were set at an hour prior to sunrise and one hour after sunset. Hunters and trappers also will be required to obtain permits from the county.
At a Nov. 4 park committee meeting, County Board Chairwoman Nancy Russell said she wasn’t sure she wanted the county to acquire the park if there were no hunting restrictions. However, on Nov. 12, she backed off those comments.
“This piece of property is the most beautiful, most glorious piece of property not only in Walworth County, but maybe even in the state,” Russell said. “I had the opportunity to go on the property with Mr. (Duane) Clark sometime ago and I would not want to give up that opportunity.”
Russell expressed concerns that a similar opportunity wouldn’t present itself to the board.
“I would hate that this board, and me as the leader of this board, would be identified as people who passed up this wonderful opportunity to have this park,” Russell said.
After the meeting, Russell, who is not a hunter, said that she spoke to sportsmen about hunting in the park, which also reduced her concerns.
The property is about 196 acres and includes about 9,200 feet of frontage on the White River. The total price tag is $1.91 million with the DNR paying for half of it.
Changes in the future
During the public comment portion of the meeting, James Houck expressed concerns that the county was buying too large of a parcel when it is only interested in access to the White River.
“I’m all over the concept of what you are trying to do here. I think it is a great idea,” he said. “However, to buy a piece of property that you only want a third of really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Houck, a member of the DNR’s conservation congress, said there is no backing out of the hunting requirement if the county decides it doesn’t work in that area. He said if the county changed its ordinance in the future, it would have to return the grant money to the DNR.
However, Dan Kaemmerer, from the DNR, said the DNR wouldn’t demand the county return stewardship funds. He added that the DNR hasn’t done that in the past.
“We pride ourselves on developing quality partnerships with local governments and county governments to create park systems throughout Wisconsin. We commend your efforts to look at this property and provide what would be a very excellent park throughout Walworth County,” Kaemmerer said. “If a situation like that would arise, our full intent would be to roll up our sleeves and problem solve with you and figure out how to proceed.”
Supervisor Daniel Kilkenny, who has supported the purchase of the park, said he if there are concerns in the future the county can work with the DNR.
“If there are issues and problems in the future, we can’t change things unilaterally,” Kilkenny said. “But there is a process through the DNR board to make amendments and changes, which I would expect if there were in fact public safety issues we would be able to at least have that addressed.”
After the county board meeting, Supervisor Carl Redenius, who opposes purchasing the park, said he is still concerned that county may would have to return the grant money if it changes the hunting ordinance in the future. He said he has now heard conflicting reports from the DNR on that position.
On Monday morning, Lavane Hessler, the DNR’s stewardship local government grant manager, said that, if in the future, the county changes the ordinance to make hunting more restrictive, the DNR would work with the county. However, she said, the county wouldn’t be required to return grant dollars.
“We never have repayment of it,” Hessler said. “What normally happens is they have to replace the land with equal value, equal utility and equal size.”
The county also would have the option of replacing the land with new hunting grounds. What happens if the county and DNR can’t reach an amicable agreement?
“Then we let the lawyers talk,” she said. “If we get into that process, there are going to be lots of discussions.”
The ordinance that was approved by the board requires hunters to obtain a permit from the Director of Central Service.
Redenius questioned the vagueness of this requirement. The ordinance doesn’t spell out how may permits are available, the cost, the length of time the permit is valid, and the requirements needed to obtain one.
Director of Central Service Kevin Brunner said that the permits wouldn’t cost money nor would they be limited. He also said, although a formal policy hasn’t been adapted, he suspects that the permits would need to be renewed annually.
“We want to get information to permit holders about the park, and the close proximity the park has to the houses and farms that are nearby,” Brunner said.
Houck also said the fuel tanks have been removed from the property.
County Administrator David Bretl said the county did remove the fuel tanks. The tanks were removed by the public works department to get them out of the ground before the ground froze.
“It is a credit to the county as it normally would be to the buyer,” Brunner said. “The site is clean, and we did go through that process.”