The mayors of two Juneau County cities on the Lemonweir River want the county to consider using county-owned land to give canoeists public river access at the former Island Resort property located midway between New Lisbon and Mauston.
“We have an interest in trying to work together to develop some sort of landing and parking area there,” New Lisbon Mayor Lloyd Chase told the county’s Land, Forestry, Parks and Zoning Committee on Monday.
Chase and Mauston Mayor Brian McGuire told the committee that local municipalities and businesses are missing out on tourism dollars because the five- to six-hour trip by canoe from New Lisbon to Mauston is too long for many recreational paddlers.
Development of a public boat access along state and U.S. Highway 12/16 between Mauston and New Lisbon was also one of the projects prioritized in the county’s five-year Outdoor Recreation Plan adopted in February 2012.
“It discourages a lot of people because it’s too long of a trip,” McGuire said.
The mayors said that the float time could be cut in half by providing public access at the 23-acre Island Resort property, which the county recently seized for unpaid taxes.
But the committee voted Monday to put the property up for public bid, as the county routinely does with tax-seized property.
The committee’s vote could scupper a county-city partnership to provide public access unless the full county board intervenes by rejecting the committee’s recommendation.
Committee Chairman Ed Wafle said following Monday’s vote that the cities of New Lisbon and Mauston are free to bid on the property and develop it for their own purposes.
The committee’s vote followed comment by a half-dozen area landowners, nearly all of whom spoke in opposition to the plan over a range of concerns that included possible littering, vandalism and loss of privacy.
Dick Randall, who owns land at the north end of the Island Resort property, said he doesn’t oppose recreational tourism but that a public canoe access in the area is a bad idea.
“I propose to the committee that if you open this up to a tourism area … back there where you can’t be seen that you’ll have every doper in Juneau County back there trying to take advantage of this place,” Randall said.
Randall presented the committee with a petition signed by more than 20 area landowners asking the county board to reject any sale or donation of the Island Resort property for tourism purposes.
Howard Miller, who owns land adjacent the Island Resort property, said that he had “dire concerns” about possibly worsened garbage problems along the river.
“They’re not good now and I’m sure they’ll only get worse if something like this happens,” Miller told the committee.
But Juneau County Supervisor Ray Feldman said that he’s canoed other rivers popular with paddlers, including the nearby Baraboo River at Union Center and Wonewoc, and believes littering concerns are overblown.
“I don’t see the kind of trash that’s been talked about over there,” Feldman said.
Feldman also pointed to state laws that grant counties the authority to partner with other municipalities on projects such as the proposed canoe access project and that make Wisconsin rivers public highways.
“But of course if you can’t get to the public highway it doesn’t do any good,” Feldman said. “It has to be accessible.”
McGuire also told landowners he thinks their concerns are overblown.
“The Lemonweir River is our greatest natural resource in the New Lisbon-Mauston communities and it’s greatly underutilized,” McGuire said. “You own the land, you don’t own the river.”
Tom Jodarski, a member of the Board of Directors of Outdoors Forever, a Juneau County conservation group that also owns land in the area, presented the committee with a resolution passed by the group July 1 that asks the county to retain some or all of the Island Resort property for development of public river access.
Chase pointed to economic data that show that canoeists spend an average of $48 per day when they’re on the river.
Not only would New Lisbon and Mauston benefit from the additional tourism spending, Chase said, but so would county residents through the county’s 0.5 percent sales tax.
“In this case the county’s contribution would only need to be at the very beginning, which would be allowing us to have access to the land,” Chase said.
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