AG Van Hollen: Announces civil judgment against Oneida County condominium developers

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Bill Cosh 608/266-1221

RHINELANDER – Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen today announced that his office has obtained a judgment of nearly $158,000 in penalties, costs and attorney fees in a civil environmental prosecution filed in Oneida County against the developers of a large lakeshore condominium project known as the Clearwater Lake Club Condominium Association. The case had been pending before Circuit Judge Mark A. Mangerson who issued the penalty decision on Friday, December 10, 2010.

The defendants in the case were Richard Gohlke, Lawrence Gohlke, Adam Gohlke and Clearwater Lake Club, LLC, all of whom were land owners of the project. The Court found that Richard Gohlke and Adam Gohlke were the active project developers, while Lawrence Gohlke had a more limited role and acted primarily as a “silent partner” for financial matters. The construction project involves 900 acres of land completely surrounding Clearwater Lake and several smaller lakes in Oneida and Vilas Counties. The developers propose to sell up to 185 “luxury lake lots” at the site. In the lawsuit the State sought civil penalties from the defendants for more than 100 days of violation of various environmental laws, including:

* The demolition of buildings at the site of a former Catholic Church camp without providing prior notice to the Department of Natural Resources in violation of asbestos emissions regulations;

* Unlawfully engaging in land disturbing activities, including the construction of a nine‑hole golf course, without first developing erosion control plans for all the land disturbing construction activities at the site or obtaining water pollution control permit coverage; and

* Unlawfully grading large areas on the banks of Clearwater Lake without providing the required opportunity for public comment or receiving final approval of the necessary shore land grading permit from the DNR.

In his decision, issued after an evidentiary hearing on the subject of penalties to be imposed, Judge Mangerson:

* Found that the defendants’ violations resulted largely from their “nearly unbelievable” failure to employ the services of a “true project coordinator” for a project of this magnitude;

* Found that the defendants, who were experienced real estate developers, exhibited audacity in constructing an entire nine-hole golf course without developing any erosion control plans, without seeking any advice from their engineering consultants, and without inquiring about the need for any DNR erosion control permits;

* Rejected the defendants’ “no harm, no foul” argument, to the effect that penalties should be minimal in the absence of serious environmental harm, and their “mistakes were made” excuse, which he characterized as a “non-apology.” Judge Mangerson noted that if severe rains, like those experienced recently in the area, had occurred when the defendants were disturbing land on the site it “could have easily turned potential harm into irreparable harm. Protection of pristine waters in Northern Wisconsin shouldn’t be left to Lady Luck;”

* Ruled the State was entitled to attorney fees of more than $80,000, which the Legislature specifically authorized the Court to award in such cases, “because it would be unfair to the taxpayers of Wisconsin in difficult economic times to require them to bear the expense because of the ineptitude of the defendants;” and

* Expressed his hope that imposing penalties and costs in this magnitude would “deter other developers from ‘making similar mistakes.'”

The Court ordered the defendants to pay the penalties, costs and fees by no later than January 24, 2011.

The Department of Natural Resources, which has primary responsibility for implementing the State’s Clean Water Act legislation, had formally requested the Wisconsin Department of Justice to bring the case. “The Wisconsin Department of Justice will continue to work with DNR to ensure that the law is followed,” said Van Hollen.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas L. Dosch represented the State in the case.