WILLIAMS BAY — The Geneva Lake Shore Path may be a great place to take a hike, but property owners and community leaders along the path do not want too many outsiders to know about it.
A proposal to nominate the shore path for a “Great Places in Wisconsin” award has met with a less-than-warm welcome in Williams Bay and in the town of Linn.
Recognition in the Great Places program would increase promotion of the shore path as a visitor destination through the American Planning Association, a group that honors such attractions as examples of good local planning.
Stephanie Klett, president of the VISIT Lake Geneva tourism agency, said that although she was not familiar with the Great Places awards, she would not reject such an honor for the shore path.
Klett likened the shore path to the Washington Monument or the Eiffel Tower, calling it a “crown jewel” in the Lake Geneva region.
“I’m always up for a positive award,” she added.
But the award nomination has hit a road block because of a lack of support in Williams Bay and the town of Linn.
Williams Bay Village President Bill Duncan said lakefront homeowners and business owners do not support seeking the “Great Places” designation, out of concern that it would bring unwanted crowds to visit the shore path.
“While it’s a great asset,” Duncan said of the path, “we don’t want to publicize it too much.”
The signs of opposition have stymied Mike Slavney of Vandewalle & Associates, a local municipal planner who wanted to nominate the shore path for the award.
Slavney, who works for both Lake Geneva and Fontana, sent an email June 7 seeking support for the award nomination from communities around Geneva Lake, including Lake Geneva, Williams Bay, Fontana and the town of Linn.
The Lake Geneva City Council voted unanimously June 24 to support the nomination.
But the proposal died in committee in Williams Bay, and the Linn Town Board voted in opposition.
The Fontana Village Board has not taken a stand.
Linn Town Chairman Jim Weiss said the town’s elected leaders decided it would be inappropriate for them to act on the Great Places nomination, because the path runs through private properties and is not owned by the town.
“We don’t feel it’s our right to make a commitment on the lake shore path,” Weiss said.
Being named a great place could increase traffic on the path, which would impact private property owners, he said, adding: “And we cannot speak for those individuals.”
The 21-mile path around Geneva Lake has long been popular with locals and tourists.
Originated by Indian tribes who lived in the area hundreds of years ago, the path remained a popular tool for navigating around the lake, and it later evolved into a recreational path.
A Walworth County Circuit Court decision in the 1970s declared the path open to the public, prohibiting lakefront property owners from obstructing or blocking the path.
Some still question whether the court’s decision covered the entire lakefront.
“The legal status of that path is fuzzy,” Duncan said.
The path is now a popular attraction for people visiting the Lake Geneva area, as well as local residents who like to walk or hike around the lake. Some parts of the path are landscaped and marked, while others are natural.
Being honored by the American Planning Association would give local communities the right to include the title “Great Place in Wisconsin” in any publicity about the path or about the communities themselves.
The award program is meant to inspire communities not only to create great places, but also to maintain and improve them.
The national association has been bestowing its Great Place awards annually for the past 13 years.
The deadline to submit an application this year was June 28.
Because of the resistance he encountered in Williams Bay and the town of Linn, Slavney said he will hold off on submitting the nomination until next year.
“I’ve gotten some concern from a couple of municipalities,” he said. “They’re unsure whether it will be a good idea.”
Slavney said he plans to take time over the next year to talk with local officials about the proposal.
As far as he knows, the Geneva Lake Shore Path is unique in Wisconsin.
“I can’t recall any other recreational lake that has such a pathway,” he said.
Slavney said he has heard concerns from residents about overuse and misuse of the path.
“I wasn’t aware of this kind of tension,” he said.
Last year, Slavney nominated an environmental and education corridor in Dane County for a Great Places award. He said he thought he could do the same for the Geneva Lake path.
“Sometimes you have an idea,” he said, “and it doesn’t go as smoothly as you thought it would.”