Just outside the city of Eagle River, near the junction of State Highways 17 and 70, is a wayside belonging to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
There are 14 acres involved, along with a boat landing.
At a joint meeting Tuesday of the Vilas County highway and forestry committees, an offer from the DOT to turn at least some of the property over to the county was discussed.
The recreation director for the county’s forestry department, Dale Mayo, told the group he and Vilas County highway commissioner Nick Scholtes had looked at the wayside property at one point over the summer.
“There was some discussion about boat landings and where the (property) line actually ran,” he said. “Since then, it has been surveyed out there.”
Mayo indicated he hadn’t heard anything for awhile and then to his surprise, his office was contacted by DOT maintenence engineer Nick Vos, based in the agency’s Rhinelander office.
“We have made some more ground and it sounds like we are interested in (giving) this to you if you would like it,” Vos wrote in a November email to Mayo, referring to the wayside. “Let me know where you are at on your end, if the county is interested, and what improvements might need to be done to make this happen.”
Vos concluded by telling Mayo if the county was interested, he’d put Mayo in touch with DOT personnel who would handle the property transfer.
On Dec. 3, Mayo wrote a response to Vos, telling him the DOT’s offer was a topic of discussion at a meeting of the forestry, recreation and land (FRL) department earlier that day.
“At this time, the committee has more questions than answers,” Mayo wrote.
In the email he told Vos the property is currently listed as being with the Vilas County Highway Department and that Scholtes “has indicated that the highway department is not interested in maintaining a boat landing and/or wayside facility.”
“I would like to see a formal proposal from DOT to Vilas County specifying exactly what lands and facilities are being offered,” Mayo wrote to Vos. “Please include the approved driveway for the proposed campground to the south of the subject property.”
He also asked Vos if the county’s ownership of the property would pose any problems in the way of future highway use.
Mayo told Vos he recommended in that Dec. 3 meeting delaying any further, formal action until spring when the condition of the property can be assessed and improvements needed are determined.
“Any agreement between DOT and Vilas (County) would of course need to be presented to counsel for both parties,” Mayo concluded.
Scholtes told members of the two committees Tuesday through a lot of research, the actual county ownership of the property dates to 1942, when Hwy. 70 was being looked for realignment.
At the time, he explained, the DOT didn’t have a real estate section as it does today.
Scholtes said because of that, the common practice was to have the counties purchase real estate for the state of Wisconsin and held in a trust.
“That’s what happened in 1942,” he said. “It is a common misperception by counties since they purchased the land, they own it. They don’t.”
Because of all that — the state having the property through a trust dating to 1942 — Scholtes thought the matter was closed and then was told by Mayo he’d been contacted by Vos about the wayside property.
“Nick Vos contacted me after the emails went back and forth and wanted my take on it,” Scholtes said and said he told Vos he had concerns and there were questions that needed to be answered, such as were there contingencies involved in whatever offer the state made Vilas County.
“If they were ever to change the intersection of (Hwys.) 70 and 17, and Dale and I have had this conversation about a roundabout, if they were to ever to put something there,” he said. “Would they hold back part of the property as a contingency for transportation purposes? So, we’re a little concerned about that part of it.”
It’s questions like those, along with others that came up during the course of Tuesday’s meeting, that led to a decision to essentially take a “wait and see” approach until more information — and clarification — can be obtained by Vilas County from the DOT as it relates to the wayside property.
One question that came up during the meeting was whether Vos as a DOT maintenence engineer was even the right person from the DOT to make these types of real estate decisions on behalf of the agency and be the person the county deals with directly on the matter moving forward.
To be determined
After Tuesday’s meeting, Tegan Griffith, the DOT’s regional communications director, said she’d talked to “all kinds of people” at the DOT regarding the wayside matter and there are things “to be determined.”
“There are three different (DOT) sections involved in this,” she said, adding because of the involvement of various DOT sections, Vos isn’t the decision maker when it comes to turning that wayside over to Vilas County.
“From what I can gather, we’re evaluating options on this wayside,” Griffith said. “We haven’t determined a course of action until we’ve talked to the (Vilas County) highway department and all the stakeholders involved.”
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at [email protected]