A Presque Isle resort is petitioning the Wisconsin Supreme Court regarding issues with the state and Vilas County uniform addressing system.
Tim and Kim Bowler have owned Alpine Resort of Presque Isle for a number of years, and its entire history as a log cabin resort among towering pines on the Presque Isle Chain of Lakes is nearly a century old.
“Since this became a resort in 1922, it’s been 7151 Crab Lake Road. They’re trying to take that away from us,” observed Kim Bowler, owner of the Alpine Resort in Presque Isle, with husband, Tim.
The state statute on uniform addresses
At the center of the disagreement is state statute 59.54(4), which concerns rural naming or numbering address systems and public safety. The state-level goal of the statute was to establish a consistent addressing system so emergency workers can locate a particular address as quickly as possible in the event of medical or fire situation.
According to that statute, a county may “… establish a rural naming or numbering system in towns for the purpose of aiding in fire protection, emergency services, and civil defense, and appropriate and expend money therefor, under which: (a) Each rural road, home, business, farm or other establishment, may be assigned a name or number. (b) The names or numbers may be displayed on uniform signs posted on rural roads and intersections, and at each home, business, farm or other establishment.”
Counties may carry out their own ordinance in adherence with 59.54. Vilas County thus passed its own version in 2008, citing then at the county board level that a uniform rural addressing all buildings was “… necessary for public safety and protection.”
Since the 2008 updated ordinance passage, Vilas County has been working to implement the system countywide, as have many other counties with their own compliant ordinances, year by year.
Disagreement with the ordinance
Summer 2015 is when Vilas County addressing coordinator Rebecca Nordine became aware Alpine Resort had an address and driveway with one rental lodge and eight units. She determined at that time “… due to the number of habitable structures located on the private drive, the private drive would need to be assigned a road name in order to comply …” with the county’s uniform addressing ordinance.
“We fought it,” Kim Bowler said.
A letter was sent to the Bowlers informing them a name needed to be assigned to their private road. The Bowlers verbally objected.
“The county came in and tried to put signs on our personal property,” Bowler told The Lakeland Times
. “Even though all our cabins you have to walk to. They are walk-in cabins. We put people’s stuff in a cart, and we pull it down for them … the county has authority to assign addresses to a business, residence farm or establishment. They are exceeding that authority and trying to make changes.”
According to the Vilas County ordinance, anytime there are more than two principal structures on a property, the driveway must be named and the buildings numbered. Alpine Resort, the Bowlers argued, has only one primary structure — their home/lodge. The cabins, they stated, do not have driveways and can only be reached via walking to each. By definition, they felt, there can only be one primary structure, not several.
Vilas County’s ordinance states, “… each principal structure shall be assigned an address ….” It further notes a “driveway means a private road serving not more than two primary structures … primary structure means a building in which is conducted the principal use of the lot or parcel in which it is located … private road means any road on private property leading to two or more driveways and/or principal structures that may not be visible from a named road … road means a public or private way which affords primary means of access by vehicles to adjacent property ….”
The ordinance further indicates “… all public roads shall be named, all private roads serving three or more residences or lots shall be named and existing public or private roads serving three or more residences or lots shall be named.”
The Bowlers cited several ordinance concerns to the addressing department in its initial phases. The husband and wife business owners asserted they didn’t want their resort to lose its historic address. Among other concerns of the Bowlers’ were the high cost of changing the business address and fire number. Additionally, the Bowlers did not agree their driveway should become a private road.
No one else or any other resort has challenged Vilas County in the updated rural addressing system, Vilas County Corporation Counsel Jack Albert noted.
“The Bowlers’ are the only resort to object to this addressing,” Albert said. “It’s a matter of public safety … we prevailed at the circuit level and also at the appellate level.”
Much of the county was involved in the effort to revamp the ordinance in 2008, and it was all carefully done to be fair and safe.
“An extreme amount of due diligence was done with the addressing,” Albert noted. “It’s the emergency nature of needing to know where the emergency is.”
The Bowlers went before the Vilas County Land and Records Committee to propose a sub-numbering system. That system was rejected by the committee.
Alpine Resort was then given a month to come up with a name for their private road. Because they did not respond, the county named it “Alpine Resort Drive.” Shortly thereafter, the Bowler’s proposed “Private Resort Drive,” which was accepted by the county and sent to the town of Presque Isle for approval.
Signs were to be installed in November and December of 2015. The Bowlers objected to the installation, feeling the county was trespassing on their private property.
Headed to civil suit in circuit court
The Bowlers opted to hire a lawyer and file a civil suit in Vilas County Circuit Court in 2017 regarding the readdressing of their property. That suit went before Judge Neal Nielsen, asking the judge to rebut the addressing the county wanted to implement at Alpine Resort.
“… the aim of the statute could have been accomplished without changing the address, had sub-numbering or lettering been used. Vilas County rejected that proposal,” Phillips Attorney Bryce Schoenborn stated in his appeal. “To extend Section 59.54(4) to include every structure used to business purpose would greatly expand the reach of the enabling statute.”
Schoenborn did not return a message for comment as of press time.
Several motions went between the county and Bowler legal teams in the duration of the civil suit. The Bowlers said the county lacked the legal authority to readdress their property and requested an order to keep the county from installing new address signs.
Vilas County countered and said there were genuine issues of material fact and requested the court keep the Bowlers from obstructing the assignment of new road signs at the property.
“At first, Nielsen was appalled by it … he said we needed to work with the committee and come up with a solution,” Bowler relayed. “The next time, he was a completely different judge.”
In January 2018, the court held a hearing and denied Bowler’s default judgement motion, asking the Bowlers and the Vilas County Land Information Committee to work out the matter. The Bowlers did not appear at that February meeting, according to court documents.
Ultimately, Nielsen decided to uphold the Vilas County ordinance. The Bowlers’ lost the civil suit and the matter was closed at that level.
Onto court of appeals
In response, the Bowlers continued to fight. The couple and their lawyer filed an appeal with the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in 2018, challenging Nielsen’s decision.
The business owners once again claimed Vilas County lacked the authority under the ordinance to name the road serving their residence and rental cabins, noting their road did not quality as the ordinance’s “private road” definition.
The Bowlers’ also challenged the county’s ordinance right to assign addresses to their cabins as they were not “primary or principal structures.”
Finally, Alpine Resort argued the ordinance was invalid because the county was “… applying it beyond the scope of the Wisconsin statute authorizing the county to adopt a rural naming or numbering system.”
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued its opinion in July of 2019 — supporting Nielsen’s decision in circuit court.
“The main problem with the Bowlers’ argument is that their reasoning tracks neither the ordinance’s language nor its purpose,” the Court of Appeals decision reads. “The Bowlers’ interpretation of the provisions implementing this general requirement — in particular Vilas County Coe 28.10(2) and (3) would lead to an absurd result. Namely, under the Bowlers’ approach, structures like their rental cabins — which, again, plainly are structures for ‘human habitation’ and therefore are structures requiring address numbers under 28.09(1) would not receive addresses. We avoid unreasonable interpretation of statutes.”
In sum, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals noted the Bowlers’ residence and cabins are “principal structures” within the county code and their road qualifies as a “private road.”
“The county could therefore properly name the Bowlers’ road and assign addresses to their residences and rental units,” the opinion states.
Supreme Court asked to review
The Bowlers’ have not given up.
In response to the action thus far, Alpine Resort has requested the Supreme Court review their appeal.
“We can’t believe the time and money Vilas County is wasting on this,” Bowler said. “We are suited at the Supreme Court level. Why? Follow the money.”
The Bowlers suspect the county has other goals in mind — possibly to fund a privatized ambulance system, Kim Bowler wondered.
The Supreme Court has the appeal and has not yet made a decision. There is no timeframe on when it is to be decided, according to Sheelah Guild, Supreme Court clerk.
“In the meantime, the county is coming out and putting up signs,” Bowler said. “The amount of money being wasted by them (Vilas County). The money they are spending, it’s our tax dollars they are spending to fight us … it’s out of control. We feel helpless and abused. This is a loss of personal property rights.”
Bowler further noted, “We have been fighting this since 2015 and it is now at the Wisconsin Supreme Court, yet the county is forcing us to have signs installed on our cabins before the Supreme Court rules and they are sending a sheriff with the Presque Isle zoning administrator in case we resist,” she said in a statement from Alpine Resort via social media. “What kind of a country do we live in? … This is the end of our democracy. Loss of private property rights. This is where it all ends.”
“The Supreme Court meets on monthly basis to decide pending petitions for review, but there is carry over from month to month,” Guild relayed. “There is such a volume that the court cannot consider all pending petitions during that monthly conference.”
“The law is strongly in our favor,” Albert said of the request. “And the purpose for it is sound … we tried to work with (the Bowlers) on the renaming of the road … the bottom line is, we can’t bend for one group and uphold the system as a whole.”
If the Supreme Court grants the petition for review, then the matter will proceed to a briefing schedule and then an official opinion from that court. If it denies the petition, then the matter will be formally closed, said Guild.
“The petition should be denied,” notes Vilas County assistant corporation counsel Meg O’Marro in a response in opposition to the petition for review with the Supreme Court. “First, the Bowlers assert that 59.54 applies only to rural roads, not private roads. This assertion was rejected by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Second, the Bowlers assert that 28.06 of the Vilas County ordinances and 59.54 of the Wisconsin Statutes do not give the county authority to name its private road because their rental units are not ‘residences’ as required by the ordinance or ‘homes’ as required by the statute because they are meant for short-term vacations and not long-term residence.”
This, however, rejects the legislative intent of both the ordinance and the state if road-naming provisions didn’t apply to roads leading to temporary lodging, O’Marro’s opposition notes.
The Supreme Court ruled on this issue already in the town of Rib Mountain, O’Marro stated.
“The Bowlers have not specified any constitutional issues in their brief,” O’Marro goes on. “While a right to privacy of the home is an issue one might assume the Bowlers would raise in their brief, that issue was not specifically raised or elaborated upon.”
Madison attorney Richard Bolton has joined the legal team of the Bowlers in the matter still in limbo.