Earlier this month, the northern portion of Latsch Island appeared on a Port Authority plan to become part of an industrial district. An impassioned public outcry swayed the Port Authority to remove the island park from the plan. Since then, city officials have criticized the Winona Post's reporting of the Port's industrial designation plan, saying that the area is in a floodway or floodplain and could not be developed.
However, since the state of Minnesota granted the Winona Port Authority the power to claim land for industrial development in the late 1960s, it has exercised that power on wetlands and flood-prone areas. Many of the industrial lands created by the Port Authority were once swampy flood-prone plots before the Port filled them for development. Some of those wetland areas were also once parkland, and some were gifts given to the city by the late John A. Latsch.
Certain industrial activities do not require permanent structures. In fact, Latsch Island is already being used for such an industrial use: the storage of dredge sand, an activity that falls under city code's definition of industry as "the storage of any substance or commodity."
Numerous Winona Republican-Herald articles from the early and mid-1900s refer to Union Athletic Field, a 200-acre plot of open space in the East End given to the city by Latsch as a park in the early 1900s. According to the articles, parts of Union Athletic Field were later sold to industrial businesses.
Winona Daily News reports from December 16, 1969, and July 7, 1970, detail how the Port Authority claimed 15 acres of land on the East End, given by Latsch, in order to construct a portion of Riverbend Industrial Park. Riverbend Industrial Park, which was filled in stages by the Port Authority over the years, was once a swampy wetland. During one phase, the Port Authority deposited 325,000 cubic yards of dredge material on a 40-acre section to raise the elevation to a height of four feet above the river's flood stage, according to a 1970 Winona Daily News report.
According to other local newspaper reports, the Port Authority contemplated taking over Dick's Marine on Latsch Island between 1969 and 1973. The Port Authority also sought to fill in part of the backwaters of Crooked Slough to accommodate a grain terminal, according to a June 26, 1974, edition of the Winona Daily News. Various other archived news reports detail plans for developing Prairie Island, Frog Island, and other locations near the river for industrial use.
Most recently, the Port Authority has been involved in an expansion of the municipal airport, in which the city has gone through steps necessary to receive permits for construction in a floodplain. The airport was a Latsch gift, according to a 1919 Winona Republic-Herald report.
City backtracks on plans for Latsch Island
Two weeks ago, a public outcry succeeded in deterring the city from designating Latsch Island as an industrial development district through a resolution declaring it "marginal land" suffering from "a lack of use or improper use, resulting in stagnant or unproductive land." That legal designation has the express purpose of empowering the Port Authority to use public funds for "the work of clearance and development." Port authorities can borrow money for improvements to industrial development districts without voter approval and tax property owners to pay off the debt, also without voter approval. Normally, a city would be required to hold a referendum vote to approve such borrowing, spending, and taxation. (Search 469.058 at mn.revisor.state.us for more information on the proposed designation for Latsch Island. Search 469.060 for more information on port authorities' bonding powers.)
Minnesota state law states that the purpose of industrial development districts is for a port city "to establish and develop a system of harbor and river improvements and industrial developments in its port district." However, Winona's Port Authority has interpreted that power in a more expansive way, selling properties in industrial development districts to large retail stores and, earlier this summer, attempting to designate Lake Park as an industrial development district as a way to fund the bike path replacement project.
The purpose of the industrial development district expansion, City Manager Judy Bodway said, was to make financing the airport project "more efficient." Miles from the airport, Latsch Island was included in plans for the industrial expansion. Two weeks ago, Bodway claimed that there was "no way to write a legal description" for the district without including half of Latsch Island. Shortly thereafter, city staff produced a map that did just that. Bodway refused to respond when asked how staff members were able to exclude most of Latsch Island from the industrial expansion after she claimed that it was impossible.
A portion of Latsch Island was on the map of the industrial development district expansion approved by the City Council on Monday, and the map indicated that this land had previously been designated as part of the industrial district. Earlier, a different map provided by the Port Authority showed that Latsch Island was outside the previous district.
What is Latsch Island?
Plans for industrial development districts and flood plains aside, Latsch Island's identity is complex.
Is Latsch Island a nature park or an industrial zone? The answer to that question, like so many others regarding the island, is not cut-and-dried. The island is commonly understood to be a public park. However, city code contains little legal definition of parkland. City code also provides few restrictions on the sale, lease, or use of parkland. Latsch Island has also long been home to a private business and a community of boathouse dwellers.
Adding to the list of identities, the island is currently zoned for heavy manufacturing, Winona's least restrictive industrial and commercial zone, which allows everything from freight transfer stations to restaurants. Latsch Island is currently an industrial zone, as defined by the city zoning code. However, being an industrial zone and being an industrial development district are two separate legal definitions.
The muddled history of Latsch Island
Latsch Island first got its name and became a fixture of Winona when John Latsch established it as a public beach, with a bathhouse, and park in 1907, according to contemporary reports in the Winona Republican Herald. Since then it has hosted many bathers and picnickers.
For over 90 years, at least some Winonans have been confused on how the island came to be city land. Many media reports, including newspaper articles dating back to 1907 and a recent edition of the Winona Post, have stated that John Latsch gave the land to the city. According to city staff and a 1934 Winona Republican-Herald article, Latsch did not give it to the city, but rather received a long-term lease from the island's owner, the Chicago Northwestern Railroad. According to the 1934 article, city officials had tried for years to purchase or lease the land and failed, until Latsch came along and succeeded in talking the railroad into a deal. Latsch then gave the leased island to the city as a park and gave the city $10,000 to build the large, public John A. Latsch bathhouse and swimming area, according to the article.
Conversely, articles from 1907 and 1925 refer to the island as a gift to the city from Latsch. Several other articles from the time period say that he gave all of the islands in the river from Minneiska to the East End of Winona, and much of the Wisconsin shoreline all the way southeast to Trempealeau Mountain. Latsch's own declaration regarding Latsch Island, as reported in its full length by the Winona Republican Herald in 1907, stated that he had "obtained" Latsch Island from the Chicago and Northwestern Railway (C&NW).
More recent media reports have also represented Latsch Island as being a gift to the city, as have city officials. During a 2010 interview with the Winona Post, former City Manager Eric Sorensen said that it was unclear whether Latsch Island was a gift from Latsch, but "that would make sense." That same year, City Clerk Monica Hennessy Mohan, who maintains files on Latsch Island, told the Winona Post that a small portion of Latsch Island, the beach, was given to the city by Latsch.
City records seem to suggest that the lease deal narrative may be the correct version of events. Deeds held by the city indicate that it purchased the upriver half of Latsch Island in 1957 and the downriver half in 1976 from the C&NW.
However, the Winona Post was not able to verify whether any documentation of Latsch's lease deal exists and was not allowed to view other city documents regarding Latsch land gifts. The city denied a request from the Winona Post to view legal documents pertaining to Latsch Island, Winnebago Island, and Aghaming Park on the grounds that the request was "absurd, impossible of execution, or unreasonable." City staff explained that finding all of the documents pertaining to those properties could take hours.
The Minnesota Data Practices Act requires that governments keep files well-organized and easily accessible. The records requested are public information under the Data Practices Act. However, in denying the Winona Post access to this public information, the city relied on another law that protects governments from fulfilling the requirements of any law that are absurd or impossible.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.
Sarah Squires contributed to this report.