Town residents blast plan for event venue near Lion’s Den

Commission tables vote on permit amid concerns that include exacerbating nature preserve traffic woes that plague area

AN OZAUKEE COUNTY sheriff’s deputy stood by as traffic headed to Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton backed up on High Bluff Drive on a Saturday in April 2020. There is concern now that a proposed event venue off High Bluff Drive would exacerbate the nature preserve traffic problems, which persist. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

A Town of Grafton man’s request to use his sprawling property at the doorstep of busy Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve as a commercial event venue for as many as 250 people was greeted by overwhelming opposition from town residents and indecision by officials last week.

After nearly three hours of public comments and debate by officials Wednesday, May 4, the Town of Grafton Plan Commission tabled a request from Bryan Gore for a conditional use permit that would allow him to host events like weddings — providing parking for as many as 146 vehicles — on land adjoining his Two Oaks estate at the corner of Lake Shore Road and High Bluff Drive, the short and sometimes congested rural road that leads to the Ozaukee County preserve.

Residents who packed a standing-room-only Town Hall last week said allowing events that will draw hundreds of people, require outdoor lighting and portable toilets and feature music late into the night will shatter the peace and quiet of their rural neighborhood, diminish the town’s rural character and threaten environmentally sensitive land along the town’s Lake Michigan bluff.

Of utmost concern, however, is the likelihood that large events on the Gore property would exacerbate what residents described as the untenable traffic congestion and parking problems at times on High Bluff drive caused by a flood of visitors to Lion’s Den, which exploded in popularity at the height of the pandemic when state parks were closed and continues to draw crowds.

“Our home abuts the Lion’s Den Gorge county park, which saw 269,000 visitors last year, already causing unbelievable problems with traffic and parking, especially during the months and days with pleasurable weather,” Mark Kent told the Plan Commission members. “These would be the same days when Mr. Gore intends to have up to 300 people attending events, driving on the same small, two-lane road, High Bluff Drive, that is the only access to Lion’s Den and where literal traffic jams have occurred during the last two years.”

James Kieckhefer said, “We’ve seen cars going to Lion’s Den Gorge parked miles away from (the preserve).”

Referring to Gore’s proposed event venue, he said, “We’re not interested in this situation coming to our quiet, peaceful neighborhood.”

High Bluff Drive runs from Highway C east, across Lake Shore Road and ends at the nature preserve. There are times when parked vehicles fill the preserve parking lots and line High Bluff Drive, as well as surrounding roads, and Ozaukee County sheriff’s deputies are called to help manage traffic that is brought to a crawl.

David Krechel, who lives on Lake Shore Road, said the traffic problems extend beyond High Bluff Drive.

“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,” he told the commission. “Lake Shore Road, during the months (Gore has proposed to host events) is shared by many bikers, walkers, motorcyclists and numerous cars to and from not only Lion’s Den but coming and going from surrounding areas.

“The fact that this type of business venture does not, and should not, exist in a residential/rural area in the Town of Grafton coincides with our request not to approve a conditional use permit.”

Krechel was applauded by the crowd because he brought Gore’s proposal to the attention of residents in the area. A public hearing before the town Plan Commission scheduled for April was canceled because area residents did not receive proper notification.

Several residents said they are forming a neighborhood association to stay abreast of town issues and advocate for their interests.

Gore wants to operate the commercial event venue on 15 acres he owns immediately to the south of his 12.9-acre Two Oaks property.

Because the 15 acres is zoned for agricultural use, its use as an event venue is not allowed except with a conditional use permit.

Gore said the events, which would be held from early spring to late fall, would be a mix of small functions of 10 to 20 people and six to eight large gatherings of 200 to 250 people.

Tents would be erected on the 15 acres and parking would be on mowed grass areas. People at the functions would also have access to the Two Oaks property, in particular its gardens, Gore said.

Access to the property would be via two driveways off High Bluff drive and another off Lake Shore Road if needed.

Gore described the events he plans to host as sophisticated affairs with valet parking, as well as a special parking area for exotic cars whose owners don’t want them driven by valets.

He said he has hosted dozens of such events at his property and never received a complaint.

In a letter to their neighbors, Gore and his sons Eliot and James wrote, “Our vision is to host affairs to help people celebrate and enjoy special moments including weddings and classical music concerts.

“We have had the wonderful opportunity to live and grow with this beautiful piece of land for decades and feel that it is a gift that we can share to further enrich our community.”

Kent called the letter an attempt to put “lipstick on a pig.”

“The activity (proposed by Gore) is clearly a commercial business activity to produce income for himself and his family to the detriment of all his neighbors...,” Kent said.

Plan Commission members didn’t seem particularly swayed by residents who argued the event venue would be an affront to the rural character of the town and in particular a nuisance to Gore’s neighbors.

Alternate Plan Commission member Robert Wolf said he supports Gore’s plan, noting that the town can put conditions on the operation and rescind the permit if Gore doesn’t abide by them.

Plan Commission member Dan Lyons apologized to Gore for the criticism he received during the hearing.

“I do apologize to you Mr. Gore for some of the cheap shots you took tonight,” he said.

But town officials did acknowledge that traffic and parking on and around High Bluff Drive are serious concerns.

“It’s a shame you’re located on High Bluff,” Lyons told Gore.

Plan Commission member Patrick Stemper said he is sympathetic to the concerns residents have about traffic and parking and called on the county to remedy the situation.

“The county needs to do something about Lion’s Den,” he said. “Adding something like this (an event venue) does pose a problem.”

Ozaukee County Director of Parks and Planning Andrew Struck attended the meeting but did not speak or return phone calls seeking comment this week.

Town Chairman Lester Bartel, who is also chairman of the Plan Commission, noted that the town has granted other property owners conditional use permits to allow event venues, leaving the commission with the issue of precedent to consider.

According to Town Clerk Sara Jacoby,  the town has in the past granted conditional use permits to allow events to be hosted at Sand Hill Tree Farm on River Road and Golden Belles Farm on East Sauk Road.

The commission tabled action on Gore’s events venue permit request at the urging of Bartel, who said more time is needed to study the request in light of the traffic problems in the area.

“I’m concerned about the traffic on High Bluff,” he said. “This is no small issue.

“The parking is something that really needs to be looked at because it’s not going to get better.”

The commission did approve a conditional use permit that allows Gore to maintain a hobby farm on his property.

Gore also requested a permit to operate a bed and breakfast on his Twin Oaks estate, which he believed he needed in order to use one of his houses as a dressing area for brides. Town officials told him he did not need a permit for that and, as a formality, rejected the request.

The Plan Commission meets next on Wednesday, June 1, although it is not known if it will revisit the event venue permit request at that time.


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