DNR permit for proposed Kohler golf course reversed

Administrative law judge rules department had incomplete information

A photo from the site of the proposed Kohler golf course. Source: DNR documents

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:09 pm

The state Department of Natural Resources “did not have a sufficient basis” to determine a proposed golf course near Kohler-Andre State Park in Sheboygan would not have significant adverse impacts on wetlands and water quality, according to a state administrative law judge ruling.

In a March 15 order, Mark Kaiser reversed the DNR’s decision to grant The Kohler Co. a permit to fill or disturb 3.69 acres of wetlands between the Black River and Lake Michigan in Sheboygan County. His ruling determinted that the DNR had incomplete information when it issued the permit and in other cases relied on planned management practices instead of actual conditions in issuing the permit. He said the impact of the golf course and its operations on remaining wetlands and groundwater was unknown.

“Kohler contends that the processing of the instant permit was unusually long and thorough,” Kaiser wrote. “The process has been long, but it was still incomplete at the time the department closed the application process.”

Kohler is proposing to build an 18-hole golf course on a 247-acre site it owns just north of Kohler-Andre State Park with the goal of hosting major championships. The company first began discussing plans for the course in 2014 and submitted an environmental impact report in the spring of 2015. The permit was issued in January 2018.

“Once the golf course is constructed the adverse impacts will be permanent and irreversible,” Kaiser wrote. “The department is required to make a determination that the project will not result in significant adverse impacts. It is unable to do so based on incomplete information.”

Dirk Willis, group director of golf for Kohler’s hospital and real estate group, said in a statement that the company thinks the decision is wrong and plans to appeal.

“We believe the facts and the law show that the wetland permit should have been upheld,” Willis said. “The DNR staff put a lot of scrutiny into our wetland application, including nearly three years of analysis, many public meetings, extensive public commentary, and a detailed and comprehensive environmental impact review of our project.”

Willis also noted the course would create 220 full-time jobs, generate a $20.6 million annual economic impact, “and further enhance Sheboygan’s growing reputation as a destination for tourists and others who want to live and work in a thriving community.”

The project would include a clubhouse with a 9,000-square-foot footprint, a 60-foot Lake Michigan observation tower and other buildings and parking lots. The company developed 16 alternative layouts for its course and chose one that minimized the required wetland fill while allowing for the construction of a world-class golf course.

The site itself has nearly 45 acres of wetlands, primarily made up of forested floodplain. It also includes almost a half-acre of globally rare interdunal wetlands in six small pockets near the Lake Michigan shoreline. Made up of wet swales or hollows between sand dunes, there are fewer than 10 known areas of interdunal wetlands in Wisconsin, according to the DNR.

Kohler’s design avoided filling any of the interdunal wetlands along with ridge and swale wetlands running along Lake Michigan. The company also decreased the steepness of slopes and planned to use bridges instead of culverts to minimize the impact on wetlands.

However, Kaiser’s ruling sided with the Friends of the Black River Forest group that filed a challenge to the permit. He noted that much of the focus at a contested case hearing held last year was on what the operation of a golf course, including the application of nutrients and pesticides, would mean for groundwater and wetlands.

The DNR determined that the project, including the construction and operation of the golf course, would have an adverse impact on the wetlands on the site, but the permit conditions would reduce those impacts to a less than significant level. But reducing the impacts in some cases required going beyond the conditions in the permit. At the hearing, for example, Kohler agreed to follow a recommendation that certain pesticides not be used and that others only be used every other year.

“There is no reason to doubt Kohler’s commitment,” Kaiser wrote. “However, this is another example of the department issuing the permit with incomplete information and reliance on a restriction that is not actually a condition of the permit.”

Get our email updates

Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.