Parking project to help Lion’s Den cope with its popularity

County tripling space for vehicles to handle crush of visitors to Grafton park; officials hope nearby preserve would relieve stress

SEVERAL VEHICLES were parked in new lots, which are expected to be paved this summer, at Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton Tuesday. In the background is a new pavilion that is also expected to be completed this summer. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Before the pandemic, Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve drew 100,000 people a year to its 73 acres on the Lake Michigan bluff in the Town of Grafton.

Last year, it attracted nearly three times as many visitors — almost 300,000 people who overwhelmed the rural roads leading to the Ozaukee County park with their vehicles.

“No one ever imagined Lion’s Den would attract that many people,” Andrew Struck, the county’s director of parks and planning, said.

The hope now is that the 85 parking spaces the county is adding to the park — a project that will more than triple the amount of space for vehicles — will alleviate the parking problems and traffic congestion that have plagued High Bluff Drive, the dead end road leading to the park, and at times adjacent Lake Shore Road and Highway C.

“This is a big parking expansion,” Struck said, noting Lion’s Den originally had 25 parking spaces. “This will certainly help, although we’re probably never going to be able to cover all the parking needs during times of peak use.”

The new parking areas are already roughed in and are expected to be paved this summer, Struck said.

The traffic congestion and parking problems that have come with the park’s popularity are now a flash point in a Town of Grafton debate over a resident’s request to use his sprawling property at the doorstep of Lion’s Den as a commercial event venue for as many as 250 people with parking for as many as 147 vehicles — an operation town residents say will only add to the traffic woes in their rural area.

“The Lion’s Den parking has extended onto both sides of (High Bluff Drive) and Lake Shore Road in both directions as well as illegally on Highway C and private properties,” David Krechel, who lives on Lake Shore Road, told the Town of Grafton Plan Commission earlier this month.

The request from Bryan Gore to use the property adjacent to his Two Oaks estate as an event venue is a town zoning issue, but residents and officials say it highlights a problem the county must address.

“The county needs to do something about Lion’s Den,” town Plan Commission member Patrick Stemper said during the debate over Gore’s request.

Town Chairman Lester Bartel said during an interview this week that he believes the additional parking within the park and changes in the pandemic will go a long way toward solving the problem.

“Covid made Lion’s Den the only game in town,” Bartel said. While state parks were closed during the height of the pandemic, Lion’s Den remained open.

“I would expect a little less volume there this year, and I talked to a resident the other day who lives by the park and he said he’s already seen fewer people going to the park than he expected,” he said. “And adding the parking in the park should help a great deal.”

Struck said it is important to understand that parking along High Bluff Drive is not an unexpected or unintended consequence of the park’s popularity.

“From the beginning, it was understood by both the county and the town that there would be parking along High Bluff Drive,” he said. “And I anticipate that will continue.”

The county and town have discussed the option of widening High Bluff Drive to create proper parking on both sides of the road, but the project is expensive, would do little to assuage the concerns of residents who live along the road and probably require a joint financing agreement, Struck said.

“High Bluff is technically a town road, but the town points out that the issues there are the result of a county park, and I understand that,” he said. “We’ve had that back and forth, and for now our primary goal is expanding parking in the park itself.”

Bartel said, “We want to see how expanding the internal parking works first.”

Although it has caused traffic and parking problems, the popularity of Lion’s Den illustrates the value people across the state place on having access to public nature areas, Struck said.

The hope now is that the purchase and preservation of 131 acres just north of Lion’s Den, to be called the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve, would provide additional public access to similar Lake Michigan bluff land and relieve some of the stress on Lion’s Den and the area that surrounds it, he said.

The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust has been working for years to purchase the property on the far south side of the City of Port Washington from Waukesha State Bank for $5 million, but the acquisition has been complicated by politics and secrecy.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources earmarked $2.3 million from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund for the project, but approval of the grant stalled when it came before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance after an anonymous legislator objected to the grant.

A lesser amount for the Cedar Gorge project — $1.6 million — was then proposed, but committee members have refused to meet to consider the grant after having been approached by a lobbyist representing a prospective buyer who would develop the property.

The state grant for the nature preserve is presumed dead.

That spurred a proposal by the county, which would own and operate the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff Nature Preserve much like it does Lion’s Den, to contribute an additional $1 million to the acquisition. That proposal, however, was rejected by the County Board.

Port Washington Mayor Ted Neitzke opposed the investment of what would have been federal pandemic relief funds received by the county, and all three of the city’s representatives on the County Board voted against the measure.

Most recently, Neitzke arranged a special meeting between the Common Council and the lobbyist representing the anonymous prospective buyer, whose goal it is to development the property. Neitzke has met with the prospective buyer but has not divulged his identity.

Struck said the process has only fueled fundraising efforts by the Land Trust, which remains confident it will be able to exercise its option to purchase the property by the Sept. 21 deadline.

He also said there have been discussions about asking the County Board to approve a lesser amount for the acquisition.

“There has been some discussion among supervisors about possibly a small contribution, but nothing formal at this point,” Struck said.

Struck noted that the Town of Grafton has been “very gracious” in contributing $132,000 toward the acquisition of Lion’s Den and pledging $10,000 to the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs project.

Bartel, however, said the $10,000 is contingent upon the City of Port Washington making a similar contribution, something it has not indicated it will do.

“Lion’s Den has been a part of the town heritage long before it was a park,” Bartel said. “Cedar Gorge is in the City of Port Washington. It won’t be a town park, but a number of our residents feel strongly about preserving it.

“I guess it comes down to, if you (Port Washington) aren’t willing to put a little money in, why should we?”



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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.

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