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Legal victory

Upholding the Public Trust Doctrine in Sturgeon Bay

A proposed hotel development would have put Public Trust land in private hands and limited public access to Lake Michigan’s shoreline. With legal representation from MEA, the Friends of the Sturgeon Bay Public Waterfront successfully challenged the proposal.

Case Summary

Door County has more miles of shoreline than any other county in the country. Local residents recognize that development on the peninsula must achieve a balance between economic growth and protection of the natural resources that make the area such a special place to live and to visit.

In 2015, the city of Sturgeon Bay announced plans to sell shorefront property to a developer for a private hotel. The proposed hotel project’s footprint would have included land that was submerged lakebed at the time of Wisconsin’s statehood, which means the state holds title to that lakebed under the Public Trust Doctrine. 

Under Wisconsin’s Public Trust Doctrine, the state holds title to lakebeds in trust for the people of the state. When lakebed is filled, the resulting land is also held in trust and protected by the state constitution. 

With legal representation from MEA and attorneys from Wheeler, Van Sickle & Anderson, the Friends of the Sturgeon Bay Public Waterfront took legal action against the City of Sturgeon Bay and its Waterfront Redevelopment Authority regarding the City’s proposed sale of Public Trust land. 

After more than three years of litigation, the Friends of the Sturgeon Bay Public Waterfront prevailed. 

Kathleen Finnerty

Sturgeon Bay, WI