PRESS EDITORIAL: The DNR asserts its power in the Town of Belgium

The DNR—Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources—has a complicated mission ranging from monitoring manure spreading to maintaining state parks, with a plethora of a diverse regulatory responsibilities in between, so it’s not surprising the agency often causes irritation and controversy. But love it or hate it, the DNR has remained essentially true to the ethic that the public should have access to Wisconsin’s abundant natural lands and waters.

Some residents of the Town of Belgium think the DNR carried that ethic too far in a decision favoring a business they fear will be a nuisance.

The business is a pay-to-hunt pheasant shooting operation planned for 65 acres of land in the eastern part of the town bordered by Silver Beach and Lake Church roads.

Nearby homeowners who had urged town officials to deny a conditional use permit for the business were shocked to learn recently that the town has no say in the matter. The DNR has the power to issue a license for the operation without the approval of the town government. And it used it.

Neighboring homeowners roundly criticized the DNR at a Town Board meeting last week, and the agency deserved it.

The agency appears to have made a decision that could negatively impact a number of citizens without a close look at a situation in which a potential nuisance is introduced to an area that is increasingly residential in character. Is the DNR even aware that there are homes within earshot of the now-licensed shooting area?

The license grant cannot be rationalized as an effort to give the public access to hunting lands in keeping with the DNR mission. People will have to pay to hunt on this land. The direct beneficiary of the DNR action is not the hunting public, but a private, for-profit business.

The owners of that business, Dan and Ann Large, have operated a pheasant-hunting preserve in a less populated area of the town for a number of years, and have a good record of responsible management. Still, the new pay-to-hunt operation has the potential to be a noise-making nuisance.

The free, public pheasant hunting that has been allowed on the Silver Beach land in the past can’t be compared to what will happen when the shooting preserve is opened. The former can take place only in designated fall and winter months (the next pheasant hunting season will be October 19 through Jan. 5) and there are few wild pheasants, so the sound of shotgun reports is relatively rare.

Commercial hunting, on the other hand, can go on year around, including in the warm months and long days when neighbors are outside enjoying their properties, and there will be many, many pheasants to shoot. The DNR approved a type of license for the Silver Beach Road operation that has no limits on the number of the birds that can be stocked on the land and killed.

Normally, shooting preserves of less than 80 acres qualify only for a license that limits the pheasant kill to 1,000 a year and imposes other restrictions, but under some strange rule the DNR allowed the acreage of the two preserves owned by the Larges to be combined in the license application, even though they are widely separated, clearing the way for the less restrictive permit.

The DNR has the power under state law to countermand local zoning decisions, but the use of that power in this case suggests a blindness to the transition of farmland to residential uses that is ongoing in this county.

What now? Town Chairman Tom Winker made a nicely worded statement at last week’s meeting suggesting that the complaining homeowners and the shooting preserve operators, all Town of Belgium residents and taxpayers, try to get along. For his part, Dan Large said he is considering building a sound-muffling berm on his property.

The best outcome would be that the pheasant shooting proves to be not as noisy as the neighbors fear. Failing that, the affected residents should aim their protests at the DNR and work, as some already have, to enlist the support of their state legislative representatives.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that, like a fight with city hall, it’s hard to win a battle with the DNR.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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