MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a conservation group couldn't challenge an agency's decision to sell state park land for the construction of a high-end golf course along the shores of Lake Michigan.
Opponents said the ruling will make it much harder for the public to challenge decisions of state agencies.
The court's 4-3 ruling said that the Friends of the Black River Forest can't challenge the Department of Natural Resources policy board’s decision to hand Kohler Co. 5 acres of Kohler-Andrae State Park and a 2-acre easement to be used in the company's planned “world-class” golf course in Sheboygan County north of Milwaukee and about 10 miles from Kohler's headquarters.
The court ruled that state law does not protect public use of the park.
“Today’s decision sets a disturbing new precedent for Wisconsinites and their ability to fight arbitrary and oppressive agency actions that affect their daily lives — actions that may extend far beyond where and whether they enjoy Wisconsin’s natural resources,” the Friends of the Black River Forest said in a statement.
Thursday's ruling overturned a standard used by courts in Wisconsin since 1975 to determine when the public has standing to challenge agency decisions. The majority found that standard had no basis in statute.
The court’s liberal justices accused the conservative majority of rewriting state law to limit the ability of courts across Wisconsin to rule on decisions that may harm the public.
“The majority opinion inexplicably and of its own accord rewrites the law to restrict the right to judicial review beyond that which the legislative text grants,” their dissent reads.
Kohler-Andrae State Park encompasses about 990 acres along the shore of Lake Michigan just south of the city of Sheboygan. The Department of Natural Resources board in 2018 agreed to swap the land in question for about 10 acres Kohler Co. owned west of the park. Kohler, which is known for making bathroom fixtures, intended to use the land for a parking lot, maintenance facility and road for a golf course.
Friends of the Black River Forest challenged the land swap, alleging that it would deprive group members and the public of the use of public park land, reduce habitat for a range of animals and plants, and lead to increased noise and traffic around the park.
Judges in Sheboygan and Dane counties rejected the lawsuit, saying the group lacked standing to sue because the swap itself hadn’t caused any harm. An appellate court reversed those decisions, finding that the swap started a sequence of events that could lead to harm.
Thursday's opinion was written by Justice Rebecca Bradley, who was joined by the court’s three other conservative justices, Annette Ziegler, Patience Roggensack and Brian Hagedorn. The three liberal justices — Jill Karofsky, Rebecca Dallet and Ann Walsh Bradley — dissented.
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Harm on Twitter.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the Department of Natural Resources board approved the sale in 2018, not 2014, and that Kohler-Andrae State Park is south of Sheboygan, not north.