A small lake in Northern Wisconsin became the battleground for a classic showdown between a small group of cottage owners and a well-healed, politically connected entrepreneur. The battle stretched out over seven years between 2015 and 2021. It took place on Carlin Lake, a 153 acre, 36 foot deep, body of water and its surrounding watershed and groundwater aquifer, in Vilas County, Wisconsin near the town of Presque Isle, population 619. The Lake is surrounded by 37 summer homes, permanent residences, and one former commercial operation, the Carlin Club bar, restaurant, and hotel. Before it was all over, local, county, state, and federal laws, an interstate compact, and an international agreement came into play. At stake was the life-style of people who saved all their lives for a small piece of this little part of God’s country versus another enterprise owned by a very successful businessman who was well known throughout the North Woods and the State of Wisconsin.
It all started in March of 2015 when the Carlin Club proposed to establish an industrial park in Presque Isle to build a bottling plant for water to be pumped from the aquifer next to Carlin Lake. The three investors were proposing to pump 12,000 gallons a day from the Carlin Club site to a bottling facility in one of several potential locations including the commercial district of Presque Isle, near the Carlin Club, south of Manitowish Waters, Minocqua, or Marinesco, Michigan. At roughly the same time, the investors formed Carlin Water Company LLC and registered it with the State, and later formed another company called Superior Springs Water LLC.
The Carlin Lake Association, a voluntary body created under Wisconsin law to protect the lake and the surrounding properties and owners, appointed a committee, known as the Carlin Committee, to look into the situation. This small group of fewer than ten members was the core advocate for those opposed to the bottling operations throughout the seven years of the controversy.
The key zoning issues framed by the matter included, first, the zoning on the land surrounding Carlin Lake where the pumping was slated to occur and, second, the land in the Town of Presque Isle, itself, where the bottling plant was proposed. Regarding the Carlin Water Company LLC’s proposal to pump 12,000 gallons a day of water from the aquifer below the Carlin Club, the Vilas County Zoning Authority in 1997 had designated the properties around the lake “residential” and the Carlin Club was grandfathered as a commercial operation. The Carlin Club had pumped water for the bar, restaurant, and hotel, but pumping for bottling and shipping was different.
Another major issue arose because the water to be pumped was located in the Lake Superior watershed, part of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River watershed, and was proposed to be shipped off-site to one of at least two locations in the Mississippi River watershed. The Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact became law in 2008 and prohibited the transport of water from inside the basin to outside the basin, with very limited exceptions. Thus, the bottling plant sites in Minocqua and Manitowish Waters were not viable. That switched the focus to the potential sites in the greater area of the Town of Presque Isle.
The initial site for the bottling plant as proposed to the Town Board was within the commercial area of Presque Isle itself. However, when the attorney for the LLC addressed the Presque Isle Zoning Committee in November of 2015, the site for the bottling plant had switched to a location very close to the Lake and the residences located there. About 60 members of the community attended the meeting. By April of 2015, the site for the bottling plant had switched again to another part of the commercial area of the town. The Zoning Committee held a public meeting in May, and 163 people attended with many in opposition. 200 letters were submitted, with only one in support of the project. The Zoning Committee voted unanimously to deny the requested zoning change, and the Town Board affirmed that decision. In the meantime, the LLC had approached Marinesco, Michigan, 10 miles to the north, for approval to build a bottling plant there, which was approved with little fanfare subsequently the plant was built in Marinesco.
On a parallel track, the issue of the pumping from the Carlin Club location was moving forward. The Carlin Committee had learned that the Vilas County Zoning Administrator had issued a letter in May of 2015 stating that the proposed pumping for bottled water would be a “change in use” and not allowed. However, the County Attorney issued a subsequent letter stating that the pumping would not be a “change in use.”
In September 2016, the Carlin Lake Association retained an attorney to represent them in the proceedings and filed suit in November challenging the proposed well and bottling facility. Shortly thereafter, people in the area noticed construction activity on the property adjacent to the Carlin Club and notified County and Town zoning officers. The officers went out to inspect and confirmed the construction work and noted that no permits had been obtained. They ordered that work be stopped, but the work continued. In March of 2017, the Carlin Lake Association sought and received a temporary restraining order to stop the construction, but the construction proceeded. In August of that year, the Judge found the LLC in contempt and ordered it to reimburse the Carlin Lake Association roughly $4,000 for its costs. The LLC tried to reframe the matter as one of State law, but the Court rejected the argument and said the authority was with County Zoning. The LLC then appealed the trial court’s decision to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, which later affirmed the lower court’s decision.
On a separate track, the LLC sought approval from the County Zoning Administrator for a change of use to allow for the pumping, which was denied. They appealed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment which held a public hearing in July 2018 in a packed room, after which they voted 5 – 0 to affirm the Administrator’s decision. The LLC appealed that decision to Vilas County Court. That Court referred the case back to the Zoning Board of Adjustment with a series of questions. In November 2019, the ZBA affirmed their earlier decision to deny the requested “change in use.” In March of 2020, the Vilas County Court affirmed the ZBA’s decision that the proposed pumping would violate County Zoning requirements. The LLC’s attorney was quoted later in the local paper saying, “We feel this is the end of the line on this. At this point in time, I do not see us proceeding any further on it.” To add to that happy ending for the Carlin Lake Association, a private family has purchased the Carlin Club property and the land adjacent to it for their own personal use.
Battles like this are unfolding across the North Woods of Wisconsin. Committed landowners and protectors of the lakes like the Carlin Lake Association and their committee are to be admired for their persistence and resolve to battle those who would compromise the integrity of the resources.