Town says no to events on Lion’s Den doorstep

Denial of permit requested by Grafton estate owner turns on zoning issue, is a victory for residents who protested plan
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

The Town of Grafton Plan Commission last week denied a controversial request from a town resident to use his sprawling property on the doorstep of busy Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve as a commercial event venue for as many as 250 people.

The unanimous decision to deny the conditional use permit was a victory for residents who a month earlier packed Town Hall to protest Bryan Gore’s plan 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 sometimes congested rural road that leads to the Ozaukee County preserve.

Those residents, who also flooded officials with letters, said during a May 4 public hearing that allowing events that would draw hundreds of people, require outdoor lighting and portable toilets and feature music late into the night would 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, was 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 and surrounding roads caused by visitors to Lion’s Den.

While traffic concerns, in part, prompted the Plan Commission to table action on the permit at its May 4 meeting, they were not an issue when officials revisited the issue at its June 1 meeting.

Instead, commission members concluded that allowing a commercial event venue on the Gore property would violate the town’s zoning code because such events would be held not only on his 15-acre agricultural parcel but also on the adjacent 12.9-acre residential property to the north.

While event venues are permitted conditional uses on land zoned agricultural, they are not allowed on residential properties.

Gore said that although his events would be based on his agricultural land, where parking would be provided and tents erected, guests would have access to his residential property to tour its gardens, take photos and use one of his houses as a changing area.

“Many of the facilities used for special events will be on residential property, not agricultural property, and there can be no conditional use for that on residential property,” commission member Dan Lyons said. “That troubles me. You’re using (land zoned residential) for special events, and that’s not allowed.”

But Gore argued that because his events would be based on agricultural land, he should be granted the permit.

“Many of the events we’ll do will have nothing to do with the (residential) property,” he said, conceding, however, that some functions may “bleed through” to his residential land.

Commission member Patrick Stemper said, “These are two separate properties, and there are things you can do on one that you can’t do on the other.”

Town Chairman Lester Bartel, who is also chairman of the Plan Commission, said Gore’s proposal is also contrary to the spirit of the zoning code that allows event venues on agricultural land to encourage the preservation of open spaces and in particular historical barns and other agricultural structures by giving their owners the means to restore and maintain them.

There are no buildings on Gore’s agricultural land, he noted.

“The intent was to preserve a few of the precious, large barns in the town,” Bartel told Gore. “In your case, you don’t have that. You don’t have farm buildings or a farmstead to preserve.”

Bartel noted that the town has granted only two permits for event venues — both on agricultural land that have barns — and one of those has expired.

The commission’s denial of a permit came despite a recommendation from town staff members that Gore be granted a conditional use permit to host events for as many as 300 people.

Gore, acknowledging that without a permit he will not be able to charge for events, said he plans to host free functions as he has in the past with parking on his agricultural parcel, which did not concern commission members.

“I would like to continue to do what we’ve done for educational functions and fundraisers,” he said. “I won’t charge for them, obviously.”

The fact that traffic and parking were not issues during the commission’s latest discussion is perhaps a promising sign that steps taken to alleviate those problems, as well as the changing times, may be providing relief to the people who live near Lion’s Den.

“During Memorial Day weekend, I thought Lion’s Den would be swamped, but there were empty parking places in the park,” Lyons said.

Cars were parked along High Bluff Drive, which is designated for preserve parking, but many of them would have fit in the recently expanded Lion’s Den parking area, he said.

The county recently added 85 parking places to the park. They are scheduled to be paved this summer.

During the height of the pandemic, when state parks were closed but Lion’s Den remained open, the preserve exploded in popularity, attracting nearly 300,000 visitors annually who overwhelmed the parking lot and High Bluff Drive, and at times Lake Shore Road and Highway C.

Officials now hope that the additional parking in the preserve, as well as the fact that other large parks are open throughout the state, will relieve pressure on Lion’s Den and the surrounding area.

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