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  • Environmental Law Section Blog
    January 11, 2022

    Public Rights on Milwaukee’s Fresh Coast: Issues with Lakebed Fill

    In Milwaukee, the state legislature granted municipal governments the right to build new land along the coastline. These projects on lakebed fill must accommodate the public. Sarah Martinez gives details about an upcoming CLE program that discusses issues surrounding lakebed fill projects.

    Sarah Martinez

    Since graduating from law school and moving to Milwaukee in August, I’ve met several longtime residents who didn’t know Summerfest is not on a natural land formation – it’s built on lakebed fill – or that Lakeshore State Park is also built on lakebed fill, or that Bradford Beach and parts of Lincoln Memorial Drive are located on land that used to be covered by water.

    Lakebed Fill and the Public Trust Doctrine

    What do all these spaces have in common? They’re public spaces that balance the need for development with the expansion of public rights and access to the iconic Lake Michigan waterfront.

    The reason projects on lakebed fill must accommodate the public is because of the public trust doctrine, which is grounded in Wisconsin’s Constitution. This doctrine protects Wisconsinites’ right to fishing and recreation, enjoyment of scenic beauty, navigation, water quality, and water-based commerce.

    What is Lakebed Fill?

    Now, I’ve said “lakebed fill” a lot so far, but what is it exactly?

    In Milwaukee, the state legislature granted municipal governments the right to deposit materials, sometimes sediment dredged for shipping channels or harbors, to build new land along the coastline.

    What is public enough to satisfy the public trust doctrine on these legislatively-granted areas? Can the state and other developers exclude the public? What are the permissible uses on the newly-created land?

    Sarah Martinez Sarah Martinez, Utah 2021, is a water policy specialist and SeaGrant Water Science-Policy Fellow with the Center for Water Policy at UW-Milwaukee's School for Freshwater Sciences.

    Public Rights in Milwaukee’s Fresh Coast

    To elaborate on some of the issues around lakebed fill, the Center for Water Policy at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences is gathering some of the leading thinkers in this field for an educational CLE Zoom forum on Jan. 19, 2022, entitled “Public Rights in Milwaukee’s Fresh Coast.”

    John Gurda, author of Milwaukee: A City Built on Water, will set the stage. Using his talent for capturing history unlike any other, Gurda will present historic maps of shorelines to demonstrate how they've changed over time. He'll discuss historic lakebed fill projects and ground the conversation by painting a picture of how the Milwaukee coastline has evolved.

    Brenda Coley, co-executive director of the Milwaukee Water Commons, will discuss the importance of public rights and access in Milwaukee. Coley is well-versed and dedicated to protecting community members’ access to waterways and working for more green space, especially in actively marginalized communities.

    Enter Michael Cain. A retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) attorney and current board member of Wisconsin’s Green Fire, Cain will discuss the proposals that never came to fruition because they would have violated the public trust. He’ll recap the WDNR’s practices and policies in dealing with contentious uses of shore lands, and tell us how the Riverwalk came to be the valuable asset it is today.

    Then current WDNR attorney, Michael Kowalkowski, will lay out the policy issues associated with these projects and property disputes that often arise as a result. Kowalkowski is a veteran in permitting and monitoring these types of projects.

    Milwaukee and other municipalities are the recipients of lakebed grants. Toni Herkert, government affairs director for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, will discuss the realities of municipal management of lakebed fill, including concerns about funding. We’ll hear her thoughts on how the infrastructure funds may be used, among other things.

    I will discuss the Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern, an area of legacy contamination of the rivers’ sediment. Milwaukee is on the verge of an exciting cleanup of its rivers and harbor. I will talk about that project and where the dredged contaminated sediment may go, as well as the legal boundaries of that potential new lakebed fill.

    Conclusion: Reserve Your Spot

    There are many moving parts to lakebed fill projects and ongoing management responsibilities for municipalities, but the public trust doctrine remains steadfast throughout.

    Come learn about some of the perspectives around these projects, and how lakebed fill might have an impact on your clients. Here is where to register.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Environmental Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Environmental Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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