Before the pandemic, Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve drew 100,000 people a year to its 73 acres on the Lake Michigan bluff in the town of Grafton.
Last year, it attracted nearly three times as many visitors – nearly 300,000 people who traveled the rural roads leading to Ozaukee County Park with their vehicles.
“No one would have ever imagined that Lion’s Den would attract so many people,” said Andrew Struck, county director of parks and planning.
The hope now is that the 85 parking spaces the county is adding to the park — a project that will more than triple the amount of space for vehicles — will ease the parking problems and traffic jams that have plagued High Bluff Drive, the dead end road. leading to the park and sometimes adjacent to Lake Shore Road and Highway C.
“This is a large parking lot extension,” Struck said, noting that Lion’s Den originally had 25 parking spaces. “It will certainly help, although we will probably never be able to cover all parking needs during peak periods.”
The new parking areas are already rough and should be paved over this summer, Struck said.
The traffic jams and parking issues that have accompanied the park’s popularity are now a flashpoint in a town of Grafton debate over a resident’s request to use his sprawling property on the doorstep of Lion’s Den as a venue. commercial event that can accommodate up to 250 people. with parking for up to 147 vehicles – an operation according to the townspeople will only add to traffic problems in their rural area.
“Lion’s Den parking lot has expanded on both sides of (High Bluff Drive) and Lake Shore Road in both directions, as well as illegally on Highway C and private property,” said David Krechel, who lives on Lake Shore Road in the town of Grafton. Plan Commission earlier this month.
Bryan Gore’s request to use the property adjacent to his Two Oaks estate as an event venue is a city zoning issue, but residents and officials say it highlights an issue the county needs to address. .
“The county needs to do something about Lion’s Den,” City Plan Commission member Patrick Stemper said during the debate on Gore’s application.
City President Lester Bartel said in an interview this week that he thinks the additional parking in the park and the changes in the pandemic would go a long way to solving the problem.
“Covid has made Lion’s Den the only game in town,” Bartel said. While state parks were closed during the height of the pandemic, Lion’s Den remained open.
“I would expect a little less volume there this year, and I spoke to a resident the other day who lives near the park and he said he had already seen fewer people going to the park. than he had expected,” he said. “And adding parking in the park should help a lot.”
Struck said it’s important to understand that parking along High Bluff Drive is not an unexpected or unintended consequence of the park’s popularity.
“From the beginning, it was understood by both the county and the city that there would be parking along High Bluff Drive,” he said. “And I anticipate that will continue.”
The county and city have been discussing the option of widening High Bluff Drive to create adequate parking on both sides of the road, but the project is expensive, would do little to allay the concerns of residents living in the along the way and would probably require joint funding. okay, Struck said.
“High Bluff is technically a city road, but the city points out that the issues there are a result of a county park, and I understand that,” he said. “We’ve had this back and forth, and our main focus right now is to expand parking within the park itself.”
Bartel said, “We want to see how the internal parking expansion works first.”
Although it caused traffic and parking issues, Lion’s Den’s popularity illustrates the value people across the state place on access to public natural spaces, Struck said.
The hope now is that the purchase and preservation of 131 acres just north of Lion’s Den, to be called the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve, would provide additional public access to similar Lake Michigan cliff land. and would relieve some of the stress on Lion’s Den and the area around it, he says.
The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust has been working for years to purchase the property in the southernmost city of Port Washington from the Waukesha State Bank for $5 million, but the acquisition has been complicated by politics and secrecy. .
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources earmarked $2.3 million from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund for the project, but grant approval stalled when it was submitted to the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee. Legislative Assembly after an anonymous lawmaker objected to the grant.
A lesser amount for the Cedar Gorge project – $1.6 million – was then proposed, but committee members refused to meet to consider the grant after being approached by a lobbyist representing a potential buyer who would develop the property. .
The state grant for the nature reserve is presumed dead.
This spurred a proposal from the county, which would own and operate the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff Nature Preserve, just like Lion’s Den, to contribute an additional $1 million towards the acquisition. This proposal, however, was rejected by the county council.
Port Washington Mayor Ted Neitzke opposed the investment of what would have been federal pandemic relief funds received by the county, and the city’s three representatives on the county council voted against it. the measure.
More recently, Neitzke organized a special meeting between the Municipal Council and the lobbyist representing the anonymous potential buyer, whose aim is to develop the property. Neitzke met with the potential buyer but did not disclose his identity.
Struck said the process has only fueled fundraising efforts by the Land Trust, which remains confident it will be able to exercise its option to purchase the property before the September 21 deadline. .
He also said there had been discussions to ask the county council to approve a lesser amount for the acquisition.
“There have been discussions between supervisors about a possible small contribution, but nothing formal at this stage,” Struck said.
Struck noted that the town of Grafton was “very gracious” in contributing $132,000 towards the acquisition of Lion’s Den and pledging $10,000 to the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs project.
Bartel, however, said the $10,000 was dependent on the similar contribution from the city of Port Washington, which she did not indicate she would do.
“Lion’s Den is part of the city’s heritage long before it was a park,” Bartel said. “Cedar Gorge is in the town of Port Washington. It will not be a municipal park, but a number of our residents are keen to preserve it.
“I guess it boils down to, if you (Port Washington) aren’t willing to put some money in, why should we?”