Gail Hibbard

Gail Hibbard, a member of the Fontana Park Commission, is shown in the Duck Pond Prairie, one of the areas being discussed for an easement. (Contributed photo/Regional News)

FONTANA — The Geneva Lake Conservancy is asking the village to allow conservation easements on three environmentally sensitive properties owned by the village.

The three parcels are the Fontana Fen, which is just south of St. Benedict Catholic Church, and prairie and oak savanna at the north entrance to the village along state Highway 67.

The fen is about 10 acres, while the prairie and oak savanna — separated by Dane Road — cover about another 9.5 acres.

Conservation easements would prohibit development on any of the three parcels.

The Fontana Village Board heard the proposal at its April 4 meeting.

Janet Happ, the conservancy’s director of development, noted that in the 1970s, there was a proposal to bulldoze the fen and build a shopping center at the site.

“My worry about the fen is that it is a good place to put a shopping center,” Happ said. “It’s a place that’s never been plowed.”

Two Fontana men, John Anderson and Bill Turner, bought the fen in 1985 and donated it to the Geneva Lake Land Conservancy, which is now the Geneva Lake Conservancy.

The conservancy then turned the property over to the village.

When the village acquired ownership of the prairie and savanna is not clear, but the Fontana Garden Club and interested residents have been working to preserve the prairie for many years.

The village already has imposed restrictions that prevent development of the fen, savanna and prairie.

Village Trustee Arvid “Pete” Petersen said he thought the proposed conservation easements were “an affront” to the village.

“The inference is that the village has not been a good steward,” Petersen said.

He said there is no intention to have anything built on those properties. He expressed faith that future village officials will be as committed as the current village board to preserving the properties.

Happ said the easement would ensure that when the land will continue to be protected for generations to come.

“We’re not questioning the current board,” she said of Fontana trustees.

Deed restrictions in the future could be removed in court if an owner can show economic hardship, Happ said. She said some Wisconsin communities also have sold off parkland during financial troubles.

A conservancy easement is nothing new to Fontana. The village has granted an easement on the Hidebrand Woods, about 10 acres on Mill Street near Fontana Elementary School.

The village board took no action April 4 on the new conservation easement proposals.

Village President Pat Kenny said the board needs more time to review the proposals.

“We’re going to have some meetings to talk about it more,” he said.

Kenny acknowledged that there has been discussion about the village building a fire station or emergency services building on a site near the oak savanna. But he said that is no longer under consideration, and he doubts it will impact the village’s decision about the easements.

Fens are wetlands that are fed by underground springs and are rare. They are home to a number of plant species that only grow in fens.

Oak savannas are also rare, but not too long ago they were a major part of the Midwestern landscape, as were prairies, which are open grasslands.

An oak savanna is an area where widely separated oak trees are surrounded by grasses and other plants.

Both savannas and prairies in Fontana disappeared once, as land was converted to farms or subdivisions. But efforts have been successful recently in restoring the environmentally sensitive lands locally.

Gail Hibbard, a citizen member of the village park commission, said the fen, savanna and prairie are important to the health of Geneva Lake. The three land types all filter storm water, removing pollutants and impurities before it reaches Geneva Lake.

Hibbard has been one of the leaders in restoring a small section of prairie along Highway 67.

Over the past 16 years, the Fontana Garden Club has harvested prairie plant seeds from the Fontana prairie during summer and fall. The club also bought some prairie seeds mixes from a nursery in Minnesota.

The seeds were then sown in late fall.

“Every year we had a village-wide seeding party,” Hibbard said. “We’d all traipse up there and sow all the seeds we had harvested.”

Hibbard said restoration of the prairie continues. She enjoys the colorful flowers that bloom in spring and summer.

“It’s kind of nice to walk through the prairie and enjoy what you’re seeing,” she said.

Chris Schultz has been a reporter for more than 40 years. He has been with the Lake Geneva Regional since 2010. He covers the Lake Geneva City Council and the Lake Geneva area schools.