Editorial: Private sale or development of Armory property may not be legal

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Sheboygan Armory 2019

A Wisconsin law may make private sale or development of the Armory property illegal. If the property is subject to the public trust doctrine, it is unlikely to ever generate substantial tax income for the city.

A portion of Wisconsin’s constitution known as the public trust doctrine provides rights to the public regarding navigable waters and lakebed. Extensive research suggests that the Armory property sits on filled lakebed and is subject to the public trust doctrine.

If the Armory’s lot was part of Lake Michigan when Wisconsin became a state, the land must be publicly owned and be utilized for the public good. Any development that would take place on the property must adhere to the public trust doctrine. In 1996, former DNR Secretary George Meyer advised Milwaukee County Executive: 

“We continue to object to the development of ‘destination’ restaurants, bars, or similar commercial facilities on lakebed or riverbeds around Wisconsin. These types of developments are clearly not consistent with the provisions of our constitution.”

former DNR Secretary George Meyer

This information was shared with city leaders whom commissioned a map of Sheboygan’s shorelines at the time of statehood. In the map, the majority of the Armory’s lot is shown to be former lakebed. The map was finished in February of 2019 and, to my knowledge, has yet to be addressed in any public meetings.

A cropping of the map commissioned by the city of Sheboygan

The Armory Community Project collected numerous relevant historical maps and documents in our research. Our findings were consistent with those of the city commissioned map. We also uncovered evidence that the land the armory sits on was filled by the city. A 1933 resolution passed by Sheboygan’s common council stated that the city has “for a number of years made large deposits of earth and other miscellaneous material on the shore of Lake Michigan immediately north of the Coast Guard Station…” We shared our research and requested the opinion of Mary Beth Peranteau, an attorney with a background in water law and experience with issues regarding the public trust.

In a letter dated April 8, 2019, to Jennifer L. Lehrke, president of the Armory Community Project, Attorney Peranteau takes an in-depth look at the evidence collected. In the letter she declares:

 “Readily Available Evidence Shows That the Armory Property is Filled Lakebed Subject to the Public Trust Doctrine”. 

Attorney Mary Beth Peranteau

She wrote that the only way to clear this matter up is to have the Wisconsin DNR determine the ordinary high water mark along the Armory property. 

Attorney Peranteau’s letter was forwarded to Sheboygan’s common council. Common Council filed the letter with no further action on June 3, 2019. 

The city of Sturgeon Bay has recently been involved in a similar situation, in which a private developer hoped to build a hotel on filled lakebed. Due to the public trust doctrine, the property was stuck in a state of limbo for over four years. Ultimately the development was unable to proceed. The developer has since sued the city and was awarded $360,000.

The city of Sheboygan must obtain a determination of the ordinary high water mark before proceeding with demolition, or they are being reckless with our public property. If the property is subject to the public trust doctrine, understanding that the property is unlikely to generate substantial tax income, the community must decide how to utilize the property before the city demolishes a historically significant building that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Dane Schaefer
MySheboygan Editor
Armory Community Project Vice President