Boat launch debate roils
DNR’s $1 million plan for Okauchee Lake wasteful, critics say
By DARRYL ENRIQUEZ and LEE BERGQUIST
Posted: June 30, 2008
Town of Oconomowoc - The state Department of Natural Resources wants to expand its boat launch on Okauchee Lake, but the local lake association and a well-known restaurant owner are questioning the project as a wasteful spending of $1 million.
The dispute underscores the problems the DNR encounters when it tries to improve public access to some of Wisconsin’s busiest waterways.
“I think it is excessive and totally unnecessary,” Hans Weissgerber Jr., owner of the popular Golden Mast Inn on Okauchee Lake, told members of the Natural Resources Board last week.
Weissgerber has had an agreement with the DNR since 1997 to provide public parking spaces at his restaurant for boaters.
He said he saw no compelling reason for the state to develop a boat ramp. “At this time, private enterprise is providing the service,” he told the board during its meeting Wednesday in Waupaca.
The Okauchee Lake Management District examined its legal options concerning access expansion during a closed session Monday at the Oconomowoc Town Hall but took no action.
“Does this make sense?” Tom Godar, secretary of the lake management district, said in a telephone interview. “This lake is already heavily used. The new launch seems to be unnecessary spending.
“I didn’t want to have a knee-jerk, not-in-my-backyard reaction, but with more boaters on the lake, it could be overfished or (have) more exotic species introduced.”
Godar said after Monday’s lake district meeting that the group wants more information from the DNR and may meet again Wednesday to take action.
Some Natural Resources Board members raised questions about the project as well. The board voted 4-3 to delay a decision until no later than July 10 to spend $660,000 to purchase 0.7 acres for the expansion. Another $340,000 would be spent improving the site, DNR officials say.
The land, with 90 feet of lake frontage, is owned by Gerald Kalweit of W354-N5098 Road T. An option to purchase with Kalweit expires July 29.
The property is next to the DNR’s own heavily used boat launch. The agency wants to blend the two parcels into one large public access point for boaters. The agency also wants an accessible fishing pier for people with disabilities.
Richard Steffes, DNR real estate director, said the agency wants to expand boating access because the 17 parking spaces for vehicles with trailers on its site don’t meet requirements for public access to a lake the size of Okauchee. With the Kalweit site, 13 to 23 more parking spaces could be added.
State regulations on public access say that given the size of the lake, it should have 29 to 40 vehicle-trailer parking sites, including a space for a handicapped driver.
If approved, the DNR would develop the property in 2009 and 2010.
Okauchee is a 1,187-acre lake in north-central Waukesha County. It’s a popular destination for boaters and anglers throughout the year because of its excellent water quality and fishing. The DNR’s Road T boat launch is one of the busiest in southeast Wisconsin and is frequently used to capacity, particularly on weekends and holidays, the agency said.
Weissgerber charges $9 for the parking he provides boaters, and all parties agree that his arrangement with the DNR drives customers to his business, as well.
With the 17 stalls on Road T and the 12 at the Golden Mast, the DNR arrangement provides 29 public parking spaces for the lake.
Steffes said the agency is concerned that the agreement with Weissgerber is not a long-term solution to assure that minimal levels of public access to the lake are met.
Weissgerber’s relationship with the DNR has been rocky. He had to pay nearly $7,000 in forfeitures for modifications to the shoreline at the Golden Mast, including the installation of boat slips, a launch and a seawall.
He once testified in Waukesha County Circuit Court in his belief that the DNR has a vendetta against him.
At Wednesday’s meeting, board members were closely split over whether to move forward with the deal.
Board member Preston Cole of Milwaukee urged caution with the purchase. He wanted to give local residents more time to meet with the DNR and said it appeared that Weissgerber was meeting a public need.
But other board members were wary of residents’ motivations and alluded to the protracted battle between the DNR and landowners on North Lake in northern Waukesha County who opposed construction of a boat ramp.
“The history of buying public access on lakes in southeastern Wisconsin has been marked by opportunities lost,” board member John W. Welter of Eau Claire said.
Brandon Lorenz of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.