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Latsch Island: Winona's next industrial park? (08/07/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Sarah Squires
     The western half of Latsch Island is slated to be added to an industrial park Thursday at 4 p.m. at city hall.
Is Latsch Island a precious community legacy and natural area or "marginal land" in need of "redevelopment and improvement?" Should it be opened to use for industry and other heavy development? Stealthily included in a plan for the municipal airport, is a proposal to make much of the island part of an industrial park, which would erode already weak protections for the island and make it easier for the city to intensively develop the riverine land gift. Following a public hearing on Thursday, the Winona Port Authority is expected to include half of Latsch Island and a section of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge in an industrial development district that includes Riverbend Industrial Park, Cenex Harvest States, the Winona Municipal Harbor, and Fastenal.

Latsch Island, the industrial zone

Over a century ago, wilderness-lover John Latsch gave Winona one of the most valuable gifts the city has ever received: acre upon acre of river land, including Winnebago Island, Aghaming Park, and Latsch Island. For generations, Winonans have swum, picnicked, lived, and taken in the beauty of one of greatest rivers in the world at Latsch Island.

It is a little known fact, however, that the city of Winona has zoned Latsch Island for heavy manufacturing, the city's least-restrictive industrial zone. This is just one of the ways in which the city has made Latsch's legacy vulnerable to development.

Though it is also considered parkland, citizens have little ability to prevent city officials from selling Latsch Island or any other parkland, as Winonans learned following the zoning of portions of Levee Park for more intensive development in 2009. At that time, city officials soothed concerns by promising that any attempt to sell parts of the park would require a voter referendum. That is, half of the voters would need to approve it in an election. That was not true. In fact, just the opposite was true: citizens would need to scramble to assemble thousands of signatures within 15 days to contest the sale of parkland. That remains the case today.

There is no protection against the lease of parkland for business use in city code. The only recourse for citizens opposed to the lease of city parkland, a city development project, or any other proposed use for parkland, is to gather over 1,500 signatures to support a petition. The petition could only call for a new city ordinance prohibiting the action, and would require that the council vote on the citizen-driven ordinance. If the council didn't agree with the ordinance advocated by the petitioners, the matter would then appear as a ballot question.

Typically, any expensive development scheme for Latsch Island or other parkland would require a voter-approved referendum in order to allow the city to incur debt. However, by making Latsch Island part of the industrial development district, the city gives the Port Authority special legal powers to borrow without voter approval. The proposal removes one of the last remaining controls over parkland from the the hands of citizens.

The proposed legal resolution that would enact the expansion of the industrial district states that "a more intensive use" of the river land is needed "to serve the commercial and industrial development needs of the city."

The city is drawing on state statutes that give port authorities additional legal power to maintain harbors and develop so-called "marginal lands." It benefits the welfare of citizens for port authorities to provide "remedies for the injurious conditions of marginal property" by developing them, the law reads. The legal definition of "marginal land" is broad. It specifies areas that flood, but also empowers port authorities to redevelop any land suffering from "a lack of use" causing "stagnant or unproductive land." City Manager Judy Bodway said that Latsch Island and that section of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge which are included in this Port Authority action are marginal lands, and that it would be fair to say that their condition is "injurious." She contended that any land that could be put to better use is within the Port Authority's power to redevelop.

The move to add Latsch Island

The city has been talking publicly about expanding the industrial development district to include the airport for over a month. In an interview with the Winona Post earlier this summer, Bodway said that the airport would be the only area included in the expansion.

Neither Bodway nor other city staff made any announcement or mention of the decision to include of Latsch Island and a portion of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge in the industrial expansion. The only note of the addition of Latsch Island was a map on the thirteenth page of the August 8 Port Authority agenda. The description of the agenda item made no reference to the addition.

The inclusion of Latsch Island was a surprise to many public officials and city staff members. Apparently, only a few people knew about the plan.

In an interview with the Winona Post, Public Works Director Keith Nelson seemed to have no knowledge about the inclusion of Latsch Island. When shown a map of the proposal and asked if he knew why Latsch Island was part of the expansion, Nelson said he did not know. "That would be a question for Lucy [McMartin]."

McMartin is out of her office until Monday and could not be reached, according to city staff.

"I'm not familiar with that," said Recreation Director Maynard Johnson when asked about the proposal.

Port Authority Development Coordinator Myron White explained that he was not sure why Latsch Island was being added to the district. "I'd have to defer to Judy," he said.

Port Authority Commissioner and City Council Member Allyn Thurley said that he did not know either. Neither did other members of the City Council.

Port Authority Commission Chairman Mike Cichanowksi did not reply to a request for an interview.

When the Winona Post called her on Monday, U.S. Fish and Wildife Service (FWS) Winona District Manager Mary Stefanski said that she had not been told about the plan, which would add a portion of FWS refuge land to the industrial district, as well. After calling Bodway, Stefanski stated that she felt the designation was not a concern for the FWS because federal regulations protect the refuge from development regardless of what the city does nearby.

When asked why the inclusion of Latsch Island was not explained in the Port Authority Agenda, Bodway said, "I didn't think it was a big issue."

City offers rationale

In an interview, Bodway explained that the change could allow for opportunities on Latsch Island, but stressed that "there's no plan for that."

Mayor Mark Peterson was aware of the plans by the City Council meeting on Monday. He, too, said there are no plans as of yet for projects at Latsch Island, but the industrial development district expansion "may open opportunities in the future at the marina."

Speaking about the purpose for the expansion of the industrial district in general, Bodway said, "If you were going to start new, how would this property develop?"

Bodway explained that Latsch Island and the refuge land were being included because "there was no way to write the legal description" to provide for the district's border. Bodway explained that the existing legal description, which has mapped the watery northern edge of the district since the 1970s, is not based on defined landmarks; part of the boundary is just a line in the middle of the river. Following section lines and the city limit line that included half of Latsch Island were the nearest landmarks, she said.

When asked why the existing legal description could not be used, Bodway said that it did not clearly define the district. There is no authority, she admitted, that is charged with ensuring that the city's district boundaries are clearly defined. When asked what practical purpose having a clear line in the river or on Latsch Island served, Bodway explained that the only practical purpose was the "ease of writing the legal description."

"It made sense to me when she explained it to me," Peterson said of Bodway's explanation of legal description difficulties.

Hearing 4 p.m. Thursday

The Winona Port Authority will host a public hearing this Thursday at city hall to listen to citizen input on the industrial park expansion proposal at 4 p.m. The Port Authority Commission is expected to decide on a recommendation to the City Council following the hearing. 

 

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