Multiple members of the Door County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday expressed interest in the idea of transferring ownership of the Forestville Dam, which has been at the center of litigation and criticism directed at the county by residents for years.
The comments came as part of a discussion after county corporation counsel Sean Donohue provided the County Board with an update on legal action regarding the millpond created by the dam.
The county began a two-year drawdown of the pond in 2019 after a two-year study by the county and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources found high phosphorous levels and low levels of dissolved oxygen. The pond, contained by a dam on the Ahnapee River, includes about 65 acres of shallow water and is under both county and private ownership.
Legal process with DNR, Friends group ongoing
A group called the Friends of the Forestville Dam, together with a number of residents and other entities, sued the county in January 2021. Circuit Court Judge D. Todd Ehlers dismissed the suit in January 2022.
Donohue told supervisors the plaintiffs were seeking two things in the lawsuit: an injunction to stop the drawdown and an order from the court to force the county to establish a minimum water level in the pond.
By the time Ehlers ruled in the case, Donohue said, the drawdown had already stopped, so the first point was moot. Donohue said Ehlers dismissed the case because the DNR regulates water levels in bodies of water created by dams and the county was not violating the law by reducing the water level.
The appeals period for the case has passed, Donohue said. But the Friends group and others last year petitioned the DNR to establish a minimum water level in the pond.
That request is pending, Donohue said. If the DNR sets a minimum water level, he said, the county would have to get permission from the DNR any time it conducted a drawdown of the pond, even for routine maintenance of the dam. That scenario would also open up the county to possible further legal challenges from residents, Donohue said.
As an alternative, Donohue said, the county has proposed amending its permit from the DNR – issued in 1982, when the current dam was constructed – to restrict the county to conducting drawdowns only of up to 90 days. That would allow the county to conduct maintenance on the dam when needed, he said, while requiring it to seek permission from the DNR – and open itself up to a challenge from residents – for anything longer.
“So far the concerned parties have not been open to (the county’s proposal), so we are continuing to work with the DNR and with the attorney representing the concerned parties on both fronts,” Donohue said. “Right now it’s really in the DNR’s hands.”
County administrator Ken Pabich said the county has no interest in being in constant litigation.
“We’re looking for a viable long-term solution that’s in the best interest of the county,” he said.
Supervisors discuss transferring ownership, removing dam
It was not clear Tuesday to whom the county would transfer ownership of the dam if it pursued that option.
The dam would have to be transferred to a taxing authority, Donohue said. He and Pabich said the Village of Forestville is one option, and Donohue said residents who live near the millpond also could form a lake association that could accept ownership of the dam.
Supervisor Alexis Heim Peter, who represents parts of the City of Sturgeon Bay, asked Donohue if there was a reason the county would not want to transfer ownership of the dam. Donohue said no, adding that the county would be happy if another entity wanted to take ownership of the dam and would maintain it properly.
Supervisor Nissa Norton, who represents parts of the City of Sturgeon Bay, asked Pabich what the ongoing costs are of maintaining the dam, wondering about the feasibility of another entity taking it over. Pabich said he didn’t have a full budget of those costs on hand but would work on putting one together.
Pabich said costs vary based on a cycle of inspections that lead to mandatory and recommended fixes to the dam. In a cycle a year and a half ago, he said, the mandatory fixes cost less than $10,000.
Donohue said the dam’s estimated lifespan is for roughly another 50 years. Removing the dam also remains an option, Pabich said.
Supervisor Vinni Chomeau, who represents parts of both the Town of Gibraltar and the Village of Ephraim, said she didn’t think removing the dam should be taken off the table. She said the dam creates a recreational water body but does not serve an ecological purpose, and it will create a major expense for the county at some point, noting the dam’s projected remaining lifespan.
Other supervisors said they wouldn’t support removing the dam because of the effects that would have on residents who live near the pond.
Supervisor David Enigl, who represents the Village of Egg Harbor and parts of the towns of Egg Harbor and Jacksonport, said he’s tried to visit the pond once a month since the drawdown started. He said he’s seen improvement, and that the drawdown has benefitted neighboring landowners by improving and preserving the health of the pond. Enigl said he would love it if another entity took over the dam. He said he would not support establishing a minimum water level.
Supervisor Joel Gunnlaugsson, who represents the northern part of the Town of Liberty Grove and the Town of Washington, said the county should increase dialogue with the village and town of Forestville and residents who live near the pond going forward.