Residents afraid new ordinance will restrict public access to Big Cedar Lake, Washington County’s largest

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- It may soon be more difficult to get onto Big Cedar Lake -- Washington County's largest, because a new ordinance will restrict access to parking in public boat launches. Many believe the new rules aren't legal.

Kevin Leitner has been coming to Big Cedar Lake for more than two decades, and has bought property on the lake in the last few years.

Big Cedar Lake

Big Cedar Lake

Kevin Leitner

"The north side of the lake is probably better for skiing," said Leitner.

It may soon be more difficult for the public to enjoy the lake after the Big Cedar Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District passed a new ordinance -- hoping to limit the number of boats on the water and vehicles parked along the shore.

"For me, it is really about the parking and then the chaos that has caused so far and the safety on the weekends," said Commissioner Paul Sacotte.

Big Cedar Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District

Big Cedar Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District

The new ordinance will require a chain to be put up when the parking lots get full. That could keep boaters like Meghann Kennedy, who lives minutes off the lake, out of the water on busy weekends.

"I think it is really going to discourage people from coming out to Washington County and enjoying our largest lake," said Kennedy.

Big Cedar Lake

Leitner also owns a bar nearby. He said the new ordinance will hurt his bottom line.

"To me, they are cutting off the access to the lakes," said Leitner.

Meghan Kennedy

More surprising than the new rules, according to Leitner and Kennedy, is the way in which they were passed.

"It was totally surprising. We all just walked out of there with... what happened?" said Leitner.

At the Big Cedar Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District's meeting, Kennedy was recording video with her phone as commissioners pondered how they will implement the new ordinance -- with valid concerns, like who will put up and remove the chains. Commissioners appeared ready to kill the ordinance in order to buy more time.

"I'm not opposed to this ordinance, but I just don't know that we're ready for it yet. I vote 'no,'" said Commissioner Mike Burns.

The 3-1 rejection was suddenly in doubt when it became clear that Commissioner James McGath was confused as to what just happened.

"Is this my screw up?" said McGath.

"You voted 'yes,' and there were three votes 'no,'" said a commissioner.

"I don't think he ever said 'yes' or 'no,'" said someone in the crowd.

"Can I change my vote?" asked Commissioner Paul Sacotte.

Big Cedar Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District

When McGath appeared to begrudgingly support the new ordinance, votes were changed and a tie was broken. The chains were approved.

"I'll vote 'yes.' The motion carries," said a commissioner.

"I was really surprised. I just waited it out like everyone else to see what they ended up coming up with," said Kennedy.

It remains unknown whether the vote was legal.

Big Cedar Lake

"Have you passed it by the DNR or anybody?" asked Commissioner Chris Genthe before the votes were taken.

"There is no requirement to get DNR approval," said a commissioner.

Big Cedar Lake

That's not true, according to statutes reviewed by FOX6. The DNR must be given 60 days to review any plan that may restrict the public's access to water. As the new ordinance is being reviewed, many said they're hopeful their days on the lake aren't numbered. They said they hope they're able to continue to enjoy what they love.

"I want to see people be safe out here, definitely, but I want everyone to enjoy the lake because Wisconsin waters belong to everyone," said Kennedy.

Big Cedar Lake

The ordinance goes into effect on Aug. 1. It remains unclear how it'll be implemented. The commissioners meet again in August after the rules go into effect.

Residents are also concerned the new rules only restrict public boat launches, while private launches remain unaffected. We're told the DNR is reviewing the case.