The ongoing controversy over the fate of the seven cottages on Winnebago Island, a John Latsch property donated to the city back in 1915, is another murky chapter in the recent history of Winona city government. Left blissfully alone until late this summer, the seven cottage holders were told last month that they had until September 13 to sign a two-year lease which expressly stated the city’s intent to have their cabins removed within ten years.
This leads to many questions. Why? Why now? To what benefit, and for whom? Mayor Jerry Miller, who sits on the John Latsch Memorial Board which oversees the property for the city, has opined that John Latsch would not have wanted the cottages there, but the evidence of old newspaper articles is that Latsch was aware of them and often visited Winnebago Island and its inhabitants by canoe. In any case, properties donated to the city by John Latsch are now occupied by many private individuals – Prairie Island, Latsch Island, the Winona Boat Club to name just a few. Can the city kick these people out and raze or confiscate their properties? Once again Winonans have to wonder and ask city government: what is the plan?
It is not as if the cottagers on Winnebago Island just came and squatted there. Until at least 1979 they paid rent to the city to occupy their places, at which point whatever agreement existed lapsed because of some dispute between the Latsch Board and the city. Islanders inquired over the years and were informed by various Latsch Board members that everything was fine, but no formal lease or agreement was ever drawn up.
Now the Board and, we assume, the city, want the cottage owners gone, and their properties removed – or do they? At a meeting last Thursday there was some hint that one or both might have designs on the structures, for whatever purpose – most of them are quite substantial.
A committee is to be formed – how city government loves them! – which would study the island and how it should be managed in the future, with the goal of transforming it into an “environmentally friendly public resource and asset,” according to Mayor Miller.
This smells appropriately fishy. In the first place there is no land access to the island and, secondly, the city has been a very poor steward of the Latsch properties for which it is responsible, the vandal-plagued Aghaming Park being a good example. Currently city hall is attempting to punt its responsibility there to the Wisconsin DNR. For that matter, the city is not even able to protect the bridge to the park from the unsightly efforts of local graffitists. Perhaps a committee could be formed to address that issue.
Along similar lines, the cottage owners on Winnebago Island applied some time ago to the Latsch Board for help in maintaining their shore line and were told they were on their own. Due to their effort and great expense, the highly erodible island beaches below the dam were rip-rapped so that the city’s property was not allowed to wash away and still exists to be squabbled over.
So it is clear that the people currently occupying the cottages on Winnebago Island are by far the best stewards available for John Latsch’s excellent gift to Winona. They should be granted renewable leases at reasonable rates and allowed to carry on.