"If they take this park, no park is safe!" declared opponents of a plan to destroy the former Winona public square, Central Park, and replace it with a new Post Office in 1961. Despite public outcry, the Chamber of Commerce and City Council succeeded in implementing their plan, providing more land for development, and adding the valuable park plot to the tax rolls.
Photo courtesy of the Winona County Historical Society
Trees planted in the city's youth once shaded the promenades of Winona's Central Park, a public square that is now the Post Office block.
Fifty-two years later, how well protected is your favorite park? Many of Winona's public spaces "even though they are considered parks, may not be formally designated as parks," said City Planner Mark Moeller. Many Winona parks exist as play areas and green space more because of an unwritten understanding than any concrete legal definition, Moeller explained.
Limited protections for parks
Some of Winona's historic parks were given to the city with deed restrictions that require them to be used as public parks. Land dedicated as a park in this way cannot be sold for private use. However, it is not exempt from eminent domain.
In 1960, Winona encouraged the the federal government to use its power of eminent domain to condemn and sell Central Park, according to a detailed account by local historians Greg Gaut and Marsha Neff. The city also has the power of eminent domain and can use it to put marginal land to more productive use, including private business use.
Many acres of parkland in Winona — including much of Bluffside Park and, apparently, Latsch Island — do not have any deed restrictions because they were not given to the city, but rather bought outright. Whether other parks were deeded to the city or not remains a mystery. "Ultimately, Lake Park became a park, but it's unclear how that happened," Moeller said.
Outside of deed restrictions, there are few protections for parks. In Winona, there is no special zoning for parks. Latsch Island and Levee Park are zoned for manufacturing, for example.
City Attorney Chris Hood declined to discuss the question when asked what restrictions existed on the City Council's power to develop or sell public parks. Hood said that the question could not be answered quickly or easily. A review of Minnesota State Statutes, Winona City Charter, Winona City Code, and League of Minnesota Cities legal summaries only yielded two restrictions on the sale of such parkland.
First and foremost, "the ultimate protection of parks comes through charter provisions," Moeller said. According to the City Charter, any sale of land used as parks is subject to a reverse referendum. That means, if opponents of the sale can gather signatures from 2,253 voters (15 percent of the last election's turnout) within 15 days, they can halt the sale and bring the issue to a special election. The reverse referendum does not offer citizens much more control over parkland sales than they have over any issue. Through a similar process, the initiative petition, citizens can bring any ordinance proposal to a general vote. The main difference is that a reverse referendum, if successful, can cause the council to reverse a decision to sell after the fact.
As detailed in previous Winona Post investigations, unclear wording in the City Charter suggests that the sale of parkland triggers an automatic referendum vote, when in fact, the opposite is true. Moeller and Winona Parks and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl seemed to think that the charter required an automatic referendum vote rather than the reverse referendum petition. When told the charter requires a petition, not an automatic election, Moeller said, "To me it should be automatic, period." He added, "I think that ultimately you're going to generate enough names, but my personal opinion is that it shouldn't be necessary."
When a Winona Post report corrected mistaken notions about the reverse referendum in 2009, Planning Commission member Arlene Prosen responded, "Getting signatures of all these registered voters in 15 days, wow. That's an achievement no one person could do." That scanty protection might lead to "another Central Park situation all over again," she said. Planning Commission members called for stronger protections against the sale of parkland. City staff pledged to research the issue and prepare a report, but strengthening park protections was never discussed again, and it is unclear whether the staff report was ever brought back to the commission.
The second restriction on the sale of parkland comes from Minnesota Statute 462.356, which requires any city with a comprehensive plan to prepare a report on whether the sale, purchase, or improvement of any property — park or not — complies with the comprehensive plan. This might offer some protection from the sale of parkland, since Winona's most recent comprehensive plan details the intended uses of each of the city's parks. However, generally speaking, the comprehensive plan does not regulate land use. Its function is to guide the city towards its aspirations. The city has sold parkland over the years since that law was enacted; however, the Winona Post could not verify whether any report on the sales' compliance with the comprehensive plan was made.
Selling parks is not the only way to develop them. There appears to be no limitation on the lease of city parkland for private use. At Levee Park, the city has long leased part of the park to private business. The city constructed the circular building at the west end of Levee Park for a private businessman to operate a ticket booth for riverboat tours. That plan fizzled, as have other businesses that have leased the space other the years. The latest tenant, the Boathouse restaurant, is an asset for the park, public officials have pointed out. However, there appear to be no limits on private or public enterprises in city parks. "There are no restrictions other than council approval," Ubl said. Could the city put a ferris wheel in Levee Park or rent jet skis at Lake Park, the Winona Post asked Ubl. Ubl said he did not know. "We would have to do research on, 'What are the legal parameters of a park?'" he explained.
Ferris wheels and jet skis might be outlandish, but the city has seen a concept for a convention center/theatre/arena complex to occupy the green space adjacent to Levee Park and a floating visitors center to be sited on Latsch Island. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service visitor's center has been long discussed and has recently been of interest to the Levee Park Committee. Ubl agreed, a development project may be part of the Levee Park proposal, which is expected to be announced next month. However, he pointed out, "We don't have any active proposal to do anything with any of the parks."
"Quite frankly, it would be political assassination for the City Council to promote the sale of a city park, though it could happen," Moeller said.
The sale of city parkland has happened, time and again, and the advocates of past park sales did not suffer political suicide. The development of Central Park was overwhelmingly supported by local business leaders. Public outrage over the plan was fervent, but the band of citizens and city leaders that opposed it were maligned as "a small group of short-sighted individuals attempting to block this worthwhile improvement," and the council worked actively to counteract their lobbying of federal officials, Gaut and Neff write.
Past park sales, development
Available land and taxable land has always been a precious commodity in the island city. At various points in Winona's history the development potential of open, park space has captivated public officials.
Winona cannot "afford the luxury of a park in the heart of the city when we are hemmed in the way we are," argued Chamber of Commerce leader Slyvester Kryzsko in 1956, according to Gaut and Neff. Kryzsko spearheaded the move to eliminate Central Park and the old, stone Post Office and build a new Post Office at the park site. That will "assure maximum use of land which is relatively scarce in downtown Winona," Kryzsko said in 1957, according to the Winona Daily News (WDN).
City leaders agreed with Kryzsko. Supporting Kryzsko's plan, Winona Mayor Lloyd Pfeiffer explained, "We have thousands and thousands of acres of parks and everyone has an automobile to get to them," according to a 1960 report in the WDN. The same article reports that the City Council approved the plan because "it would put nontaxable property on the tax rolls."
Central Park was of no use to the city, the council ruled. It was only being used, one councilman claimed, "as a short cut for a few people," another 1960 WDN article reports.
The plan had many opponents who petitioned congressmen and federal officials to no avail. As Gaut and Neff write, the park that Winona's founder, Orrin Smith, gave to the city to remain a public park indefinitely was leveled and the current Post Office constructed in 1963. A remnant of the park remains on Broadway.
Another past park, Union Athletic Field, was a huge open space on the East End — 200 acres by one account — given to the city by John Latsch. Apparently, much of the athletic field was later sold by the city to become the home of many of today's East End industrial businesses. According to WDN reports, Union Athletic Field appears to have been sold for development in portions, some of which were sold in accordance with the bylaws of Latsch's deed. It appears that at least one section of Union Athletic Field was seized for industrial development by the Port Authority through eminent domain.
In 1969, the city sold a small, 1.5-acre park near the intersection of highways 61 and 14 to the Valley Baptist Church, according to the WDN. One council member opposed the deal and said that, with so much tax-exempt land, the city should delay the sale to find a for-profit business who would buy the site, the WDN reported.
In 2001, the city sold a three-quarter-acre section of Lake Park to Winona Health in order to allow the expansion of its facilities. In effect, the deal was a trade for another, equal-sized parcel, one that some council members said was better anyway. However, the exchange was, legally, a sale. Council member George Borzyskowksi and former Mayor Jerry Miller cast the only dissenting votes. "I am not in favor of swapping any parkland," said Borzyskowski. "In the next 25 to 30 years that whole land could be hospital. Parkland is at a prime. We all treasure it."
"When we start giving up valuable land, I get a little uncomfortable," Miller said.
Former City Attorney Richard Blahnik assured the council that before any sale, "the determination has to be made by city staff that the land is no longer needed for recreation."
The Lake Winona parcel southwest of the hospital that is now home to River Hills Dental was sold by the city to developers decades ago, although it is unclear whether the parcel was considered part of Lake Park prior to its sale.
Over the years, the city has considered selling or developing parks a number of times, before councilors thought better of such plans. The Port Authority proposed plans to claim Prairie Island for industrial development and take over the municipal marina, according to WDN reports from 1969 and 1973. The Park and Recreation Board proposed selling a portion of Lake Park to become a residential home in 1955, according to the WDN. In 1966 and 1969, the council twice considered proposals to sell the top of Bluffside park near Wincrest to residential developers and had committees consider the concept, WDN reporters wrote. The council nearly approved construction of a new hospital on the shore of Lake Winona near Franklin Street in 1957, the WDN reports. Council members' interest in building the hospital on city land "so that no more land is removed from the tax rolls" was tempered by the thought that the city should develop more long-term park plans before it whittled down its holdings, according to the report.
These instances of sales and proposed sales were gleaned from newspaper archives from 1950 through 2013 and do not reflect a comprehensive history of the city's exchange and development of parks. Even during the time frame examined, parkland exchanges may not have been published, or located during the Winona Post's research.
How to protect parks
Winona's parks may not be legally defined, but "they are used as parks, so we accept them as parkland," Moeller said. "Short of just accepting that, the option may be to designate these areas as parks." Zoning code offers a likely option for better designating Winona's parklands. Zoning, after all, is a city's primary tool for controlling land use. Duluth, another port city with a significant amount of parkland, has a zoning district specifically for parks. A special zoning district for parks would make sense, "would be an easy way to do it," and the public hearings required for zone changes would make the process of altering park spaces more visible, Moeller said. "There is probably a need for specific restrictions" on use of parks, he added.
Winona currently has a conservancy zoning district intended for natural areas, but most of the city's parks are not zoned in that district. Rules against construction and building maintenance might make that district troublesome for many parks. Zoning may not be the only way to provide more definite legal boundaries for parks.
Regardless, "the bottom line is that defining parks and uses is all secondary to ownership," Moeller said. The city can restrict how it uses parkland, "but if the charter allows parks to be disposed of relatively easily," those restrictions do not matter, he said. "In my mind it shouldn't be as easy as, 'Let's just sell it,'" he continued.
Making park sales subject to an automatic referendum vote might require changing the city charter, a process that is much more complicated and burdensome than simply amending the zoning code.
Greg Gaut and Marsha Neff's history of Central Park and Winona's old and new Post Offices, "Downsizing the Public Realm: the Building and Razing of Winona's Grand Post Office," was published in this summer's edition of Minnesota History. Minnesota History is available at the archives of the Winona County History Center and online at www.mnhs.org/market/mhspress/minnesotahistory.
Learn more about rules regarding the sale of parkland and the reverse referendum by reading section five and section 11.05 of the Winona City Charter, available at www.cityofwinona.com by clicking on "Public Documents," then "City Code," and "A Charter."