Most of Latsch Island will not be added to a Winona industrial park after over 50 people packed the Winona City Council chambers and decried a perceived lack of transparency from the City of Winona Port Authority. After claiming that it was not possible to define the boundaries of the airport industrial district without including the island park located miles downstream, city staff quickly prepared a new map that did just that.
Most of Latsch Island will not be part of an industrial development district, but it is already being used to store dredge sand, a material sometimes used for fill. The City Council approved storing sand there years
The Port Authority Commission voted unanimously to approve that amended map. The Port Authority added the municipal airport to the industrial district in order to use its special legal powers to borrow $1.2 million without voter approval for improvements to the airport. When a map for the industrial expansion was first released last week, the Winona Post noticed that it included half of Latsch Island. City Manager Judy Bodway explained that there was no way to define the boundary without including Latsch Island. However, just two days after making those statements, Bodway produced a new map that defined the boundary without including most of Latsch Island.
Bodway's claim that the city needed to use half of Latsch Island as a landmark for legal purposes is "nonsense; that's archaic," said former Winona State University Professor Carol Jefferson during the public hearing. Jefferson told Bodway, "Use GPS. It's modern technology."
Industrial development opportunities may be limited at the island site; however, adding land to the industrial park district may allow the Port Authority to borrow without voter approval for non-industrial development. The Port Authority demonstrated its willingness to stretch the purpose of industrial development districts as defined in state law this summer when it announced plans to make Lake Park an industrial district. According to one elected official, the city dropped those plans after encountering political resistance to designating Lake Winona as an industrial park.
One piece of Latsch Island is in the industrial development district approved by the commission. (See sidebar). Even as Port Authority commissioners defended the transparency of their activities, city staff failed to explain discrepancies between the two maps. (See sidebar).
Citizens call for transparency,
Many area residents who spoke during the public hearing expressed frustration over a long history of contentious city decision-making and Port projects. A common point of reference was the dredging of Lake Winona to create Riverbend Industrial Park, which was listed on election ballots as an industrial park meant to bring in high-paying manufacturing jobs. However, it became home to big box stores after City Council members appeared to skirt Open Meeting Law requirements to meet with Wal-Mart officials.
Also frequently referenced was the city's handling of the frac sand moratorium. Public concern prompted a halt of new or expanded frac sand operations and a study of the industry's potential for health and environmental risks, but the city exempted its Port from the moratorium. Then the city increased shipments of frac sand at its port, while precluding private businesses from doing the same.
"What it looks like is you're trying to plan build a bigger Port. That's what it means to us," Jefferson said. "And what does a bigger Port mean? More frac sand trucks."
The solution: "Dissolve the Port Authority," urged Jefferson. "I don't think it serves the citizens, the residents; I think it serves corporate interests." Jefferson stated that the Port's power to borrow millions without voter approval was "taxation without elected representation." Unlike other all other city bodies, the Port Authority can borrow without voter approval if the project is within an industrial development district. The Port Authority pays off the debt incurred for such projects by increasing property taxes. Only two members of the seven-member commission are elected.
Winonan Steve Anderson agreed. "The biggest thing is that I feel that we're using the Port Authority as a means to rule the people without representation," he said. "I don't feel that's right. I believe there was a war fought over that concept."
"There is a lot of history from the Port Authority," said area resident Saul Simon. "The public has seen a lot of your projects as not meeting the best interests of the community, but maybe meeting special interests." Simon reminded commissioners of the so-called Riverbend Industrial Park that was funded by taxpayers and is occupied by large retail stores. "There's a lot of distrust from the community. So maybe you could reflect on that and think about what you could do to be more transparent to the community," he suggested.
"I think there is a credibility issue here," said Winona resident Hans Madland. "I think there are a lot of fairly intelligent people in this community who have come to really question if there are things going on that are really in the best interests of the entire community as opposed to just a few people or a certain industry. I think those concerns are somewhat legitimate given the pattern that seems to be emerging of things being done in a way that isn't quite transparent to all of us."
The pattern at city hall, Madland continued, is this: "Fears are mitigated, rationalized, and then dismissed. And then what we find out subsequently is that, in fact, that our worst fears turned out to be true."
Backroom deals at city hall are nothing new, said boat house resident and downtown business owner Auralee Likes. She said that after her first experience with city staff turned sour, a friend told her, "This is how Winona works. Things are done behind closed doors. They have ideas about who they want, and things generally go the way they've already been decided."
Many citizens spoke specifically about Latsch Island and what the place meant to them and the community.
Winona native Josh Stoen said he was shocked by the proposal. For years, Latsch Island "has been a vacation spot, a leisurely getaway, a place of beauty and a gathering place," he said.
Winona Heritage Preservation Commission member Lynn Englund said, "My concern is that something that has heritage and meaning to the city would go away." She said she was unhappy that the historic bathhouse that used to welcome swimmers to Latsch beach was removed. "Things do disappear. Rather than have people decide this, it needs to be voted on."
Winonan Bryce Christoffersen announced that he was attending on behalf of a 1400-person-strong Facebook group committed to protecting Latsch Island from development and online petition to block the expansion that received 900 signatures.
The hearing drew many who had never been to a city hall meeting before. "This is my favorite place to go swimming," said one such young man, smiling and pointing to a spot on the map of the industrial district expansion that city staff had just given him. Regular attendees of city meetings came, too, including a local purveyor of industrial properties.
The gathered crowd applauded after Jefferson, Madland, and others finished speaking.
"To facilitate this, let's not applaud after each one," suggested Port Authority Commission President and Wenonah Canoe owner Mike Cichanowski. The audience did not comply.
After many spoke, Cichanowski asked three times, as required by law, if anyone wished to speak before closing the public hearing. Later, Cichanowski allowed three citizens to speak after the public hearing was closed, when a fourth stood asking to reopen the public comment period, Cichanowski said that was enough.
"I understand it's inconvenient to stretch this out, but I think they are people who would like to say something," said Madland, addressing the chairman.
"We already had the public hearing," explained Cichanowski and called for commissioners to make a motion on the proposal.
Commission responds to criticism
"Come to the meetings" if you are concerned, Cichanowski told the crowd. He pointed out that few citizens ever come to Port Authority meetings. "There are no secrets. Come to the meetings," he said. Had members of the audience attended meetings, they would not have learned about the proposal to include Latsch Island in the industrial district expansion, which was never mentioned at a previous meetings.
There was no attempt to hide anything; the public hearing notice was in the paper, Cichanowski added. If citizens were able to locate the small legal notice for the hearing, they might have found an illegible, thumbnail version of the map and the legal notice that made no mention of Latsch Island. The Port Authority agenda packet did not include the words "Latsch Island" either.
Bodway pointed out that just because an area is part of an industrial development district does not mean that it will become filled with heavy industrial businesses. That is true; however, designation as an industrial development district takes financial control over bonding projects out of voters' hands. Designation as "marginal land" — another aspect of the city's proposal for Latsch Island — is one path often used when a government seizes private property for development through eminent domain.
It appears as though the petition to preserve the island parkland into the future will not be abandoned. "This effort is going to be a long one. Understand that a lot of people in this community care deeply about the island," Christofferson told the commission. "And I don't think we're going anywhere."
Keep reading your community newspaper, the Winona Post, as we continue to provide in-depth coverage of this and other issues.
Sarah Squires contributed to this report.