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Supreme Court to hear case on Lake Koshkonong levels

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
February 28, 2012
— The Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by the Rock-Koshkonong Lake District over state-controlled water levels at Lake Koshkonong.

The lake district announced the Supreme Court's intent in a news release Monday.


The appeal will be the final chapter in a long legal battle between the lake district and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources over regulatory rules that allow the DNR to control water levels on Lake Koshkonong.


The appeal centers on a 2003 request by the lake district and stakeholders to increase the depth 7.2 inches at Lake Koshkonong during summer and to eliminate the DNR's practice of drawing down the lake in the winter.


The DNR denied the request. The denial was upheld in a 2008 ruling in Rock County Court and upheld again by a state appeals court ruling in June.


The appeals courts ruled that the Department of Natural Resources isn't required to consider the economic impact of water level mandates on residential properties and businesses, according to a written opinion by Judge Paul Higginbotham, the appeals judge who heard the case.


The court decided instead that state statutes allow the DNR to set water levels for impounded lakes as a way to promote safety and to protect people's health and their property.


Lake District Chairman Brian Christianson said that the Supreme Court's decision to hear the case "ratifies our (the lake district's) opinion that the DNR ignored facts and misapplied their authority."


Christianson said the lake district was not surprised by the earlier court decisions, especially the appellate court's.


"They (the appellate court) are based in Madison, and they've got a long history of siding with state agencies in these kinds of cases," he said.


The district views the three years it took to get an appellate court decision as a positive sign for their case.


"We feel good about our chances, but we feel equally good that the road ends here," he said.


Sources say the Supreme Court could take up the appeal in July or August.


Lake district officials want to use the Indianford Dam to hold water back when levels dip at Lake Koshkonong. The lake district owns the dam, but the DNR regulates its operation.


The lake district has asked the DNR to consider how higher lake levels could increase the recreational value of properties along the lake and boost revenue to businesses around the lake.


The lake district, which is the sixth-largest inland lake in the state, has a total assessed property value of $500 million.


The battle over water levels has put interests of lake district officials and business owners at odds with some local environmental groups who have argued that raising water levels at the lake could harm wetlands on the outskirts of the lake.


Still, lake district residents have pledged support for the lake district's appeal. Taxpayers at the lake district's 2008 annual meeting voted to take the water level case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.


At the annual meeting last year, district residents again supported the lake district's fight, approving a district budget that laid aside money for legal fees if the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal.


The lake district has spent $475,000 in legal fees and research on the case since 2005, Christianson said.



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