A recent rulingby the Wisconsin Supreme Court was a small victory for Kohler Co. in its years-long push to develop a championship-level course along Lake Michigan on the south end of Sheboygan. However, the project still has several hurdles to clear before construction can begin.
In a 4-3 decision, the court in late June determined that an activist group known as Friends of the Black River State Forest lacked standing to challenge an earlier move by the Department of Natural Resources to transfer state park land to Kohler Co. for the project.
The 18-hole golf course was first proposed in 2014 for a 247-acre parcel, located directly north of Kohler-Andrae State Park, that Kohler Co. has owned for several decades.
As part of the 2018 land swap deal, the DNR approved the transfer of 4.59 acres of Kohler-Andrae State Park - along with a 1.88-acre easement - in exchange for 9.5 acres of adjacent Kohler-owned land, as long as the company obtains the necessary permits and permissions for the golf course project. Friends of the Black River State Forest sued the DNR, arguing the land swap agreement would harm public access to the park and reduce wildlife habitat.
The court's conservative majority disagreed with the group's argument, ruling in favor of Kohler Co. and the DNR.
But the decision is not exactly a green light for the DNR-Kohler land swap, much less the project at large.
"There are two DNR permitting processes still pending in the courts pertaining to wetland fill and stormwater management," DNR communications director Sarah Hoye wrote in an email to BizTimes.
The project was granted a wetland permit in 2018 by the DNR only to have it overturned by an administrative law judge. Last year, a Sheboygan County judge dismissed a Kohler lawsuit seeking to uphold the DNR’s original decision. Kohler has appealed and the case awaits a decision from the Court of Appeals.
"The project cannot move forward as planned without a wetland permit, and there’s no timetable for the court’s decision," said Hoye.
There was also a challenge to the DNR’s decision to grant Kohler stormwater permit coverage, and that case is currently on hold in Sheboygan County Circuit Court.
At this time, Kohler has stormwater permit coverage, said Hoye. In addition, Kohler has applied for and received an Incidental Take Permit for impacts to sand reedgrass, which the state deems as a threatened plant.
Another hold up is the project's now-outdated Endangered Resources Review, which identifies rare species of plants and animals that could be impacted by a development project. The review needs to be updated before site work can begin, said Hoye.
"Because several years have passed since the original ER Review was conducted for Kohler, it is possible that there will be additional species needing coverage under an Incidental Take Permit. This could occur due to new rare species records in the area, changes in project plans, or changes in habitat on site," she said.
Following the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, BizTimes reached out to Kohler Co. for details on next steps. The company issued a statement in response, saying it is "pleased" that the court has affirmed the 2018 property exchange.
"We look forward to developing our public golf course in the City of Sheboygan on property owned by Kohler Co. for more than 75 years, and are committed to creating a world-class golf course that respects the property’s natural character and opens up private land to the public for the first time," said Dirk Willis, vice president of golf, landscape and retail for Kohler Hospitality, in the statement.
Willis pointed to the economic impact the course would have on the region and city of Sheboygan, including expanded tax base, new tax revenues and more than 200 new jobs.
"Our company has an established track record of good environmental stewardship with a commitment to following all applicable municipal, state, and federal regulations," he said.
As far as the city's oversight of project, "the land use approval process is complete and should there be no more pending lawsuits, the Kohler Co. can pull building permits to start construction," Chad Pelishek, director of planning and development at the City of Sheboygan, told BizTimes in an email.
The proposed lakefront course would be the fifth 18-hole world-class golf course in Sheboygan County for Kohler Co., which began building its global reputation for championship golf in 1988 with the opening of Blackwolf Run in the village of Kohler and, soon after, Whistling Straits north of Sheboygan along Lake Michigan. Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits each have two 18-hold golf courses.
Those courses have been ranked among the best in the world and have held numerous professional golf championship events, including the 1998 and 2012 U.S. Women’s Opens at Blackwolf Run; 2004, 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships and, most notably, the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits. Kohler's golf courses and top-rated leisure attractions, including the American Club and Kohler Waters Spa, draw international visitors year-round and are considered to have put both Kohler and Wisconsin on the map as a destination for resort golf.
Despite the numerous legal and environmental roadblocks Kohler Co. has faced in getting its fifth Sheboygan County course off the ground, the company has continued to express confidence that the project will eventually get done - by any means necessary. Speaking to BizTimes in December 2021, Kohler Co. president and chief executive officer David Kohler said the company is "very committed to seeing it through."
"We’re long-term oriented as a company and are working through those specific issues and challenges," he said.