Anglers, kayakers, duck hunters and other recreationists who can’t find access to coveted lakes or rivers might be overlooking public launches, swimming holes and fishing hotspots reserved for them in statute for more than 100 years.
Unfortunately, many public-access sites are rural Wisconsin’s version of secret staircases. They’re known only to locals who learned of them from a father or friend during childhood.
These sites are sometimes disguised — and guarded — as private property, even though adjacent landowners neither own nor pay taxes on them. In fact, some landowners plant shrubs, build swing sets or place burn barrels on accesses to discourage public use.
Still others build sheds, garages and fences on them after their town board improperly transferred the property’s title. They risk a contested claim should they try to sell or transfer the property. Such transactions trigger a title search, which might reveal the parcel was transferred from public trust without a court and the Department of Natural Resources’ approval.
This isn’t a mere administrative rule the DNR is enforcing. Public-access rights to navigable waters are guaranteed by Wisconsin’s constitution. Their origins even date to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was signed by President George Washington in 1789.
The Legislature reinforced those rights during the late 1800s by requiring subdivision developers to reserve 60 feet of shoreline every half-mile for public use, and provide access to the sites from the nearest public roadway. The law applies only to rural subdivisions, not those in villages and cities. Also, in a more recent concession to developers, lawmakers exempted condominium subdivisions.
To legally abandon a public access and transfer it to private ownership, towns and counties must follow a formal public-review process. That includes submitting a proposed resolution or ordinance to the DNR, and possibly giving public notice and holding a hearing.
However, town boards often don’t know about this law, and such parcels often don’t attract public use.
“The law doesn’t require townships to provide parking or maintain the sites for public use,” said Gary Hanson, who coordinates access-abandonment cases in the DNR’s Green Bay office.
Therefore, unless people often use a site, those 60-foot wide rights-of-way can fill with brush, trees or lawns. Adjoining landowners might start viewing them as extensions of their own land. Before long, some resent public intrusions and petition their town board to “quit-claim” the land to them.
The idea appeals to town boards because the site then becomes taxable property. If they knew the law, however, they’d know they must notify the DNR and provide a similar or higher-quality access nearby before transferring ownership.
In many cases, the DNR never hears about such transactions until the new “owner” denies access to an angler or swimmer. Bruce Neeb, Hanson’s counterpart in the DNR’s Eau Claire office, probably handles more access-abandonment disputes than any other DNR coordinator.
“Typically, an ice fisherman finds a no-trespassing sign one day, or some kid gets chased away from a spot he always fished with his dad,” Neeb said. “If the neighbor doesn’t hold title, he can’t close the access. And if he does hold title, it might go to court. Either way, it’s best to work something out with the state. No bank will loan money to a buyer if the state is challenging the title.”
How many rural-subdivision access sites exist in Wisconsin? With 15,000 lakes, no one knows. But because of our accessible-waterways heritage, some of the best sources for identifying these sites are plat maps dating to the 1800s and early 1900s.
Five years ago, for example, a DNR intern used plat maps and Chippewa County’s Geographic Information Systems website to locate 29 public-access points on Lake Wissota. On-site inspections found 19 of the sites (66 percent) had been “encroached on, built upon or disguised in some way” by adjoining landowners, Neeb said.
Hanson said the DNR would like to locate, plat and publicize every access point in Wisconsin, but it lacks the staff and time to conduct such an inventory.
“It basically means studying a county’s GIS website and scouring old plat maps lot by lot,” Hanson said. “There’s more access out there than most people realize. Public vigilance is the best way to maintain them.”
If you know of an access site claimed by squatters, contact the DNR. If our lawmakers care about Wisconsin’s outdoors heritage, this is one DNR duty they won’t strip.
Contact Patrick Durkin, a freelance columnist, at email@example.com or write to him at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981.