Council ponders future of private river docksThe Hudson City Council faces a dilemma over boat docks in the St. Croix River that state and city officials say are there illegally.
By: Randy Hanson, Hudson Star-Observer
The Hudson City Council faces a dilemma over boat docks in the St. Croix River that state and city officials say are there illegally.
Some of the docks belonging to First Street homeowners have been in place for decades, but now the city is faced with either ordering them removed or finding a way to bring them into compliance with local and state laws.
After a lengthy discussion of the situation Monday night, the council voted to refer the issue to the Finance Committee for a recommendation on how to proceed.
The matter normally would have gone to the Public Works Committee, but because only two members of the three-member committee would have been able to discuss it, the decision was made to send it to the larger Finance Committee.
Alderperson Randy Morrissette, a member of both the Public Works and Finance committees, recused himself from discussion of the issue, apparently because his parents reside on First Street and will be affected by the council’s decision.
Alderperson John Hoggatt also recused himself from Monday night’s discussion. He and his wife, Sarah Atkins, live on First Street and own one of the docks in question.
The other members of the Finance Committee are Mayor Alan Burchill and alderpersons Lori Bernard and Rich Vanselow.
The motion to send the issue to the Finance Committee passed 3-2, with Burchill casting the tie-breaking vote. Alderpersons Vanselow and Mary Yacoub were also for having the Finance Committee recommend a solution. Alderpersons Bernard and Kurt TeWinkel opposed the motion.
Burchill read a statement at the start of the discussion explaining how the issue arose.
He said the police department had had difficulty enforcing an ordinance against extended boat parking and anchoring along the city property between Lakefront Park and St. Croix Street because of the private docks, which also are on city property.
The Public Works and Parks Department also began a major cleanup along the pathway between Lakefront and St. Croix Street last fall, he said, and encountered some resistance from homeowners who thought the city workers were on private property.
According to a report from Public Works and Parks Director Tom Zeuli, the cleanup uncovered an abandoned dock, a canoe belonging to a Third Street resident, other personal property and a lot of debris.
“It is city property,” Burchill said, noting that property records were checked.
The back yards of the houses on the west side of First Street between Lakefront Park and St. Croix Street end at the pathway.
The problem is that permits were never issued for the docks, as is required by state law and a city ordinance. In addition, only a waterfront property owner can be issued a permit for a dock.
The city purchased most of the pathway property from the Chicago Northwestern railroad in 1988. Other pieces were added in 1998, 1999 and 2001. The pathway property was surveyed in 1998.
According to information presented Monday night, the city sent surveys to 19 First Street property owners last January, inquiring whether they had a dock in the river. Seven of the 12 property owners who responded to the survey replied that they did own docks.
A group of city officials and Department of Natural Resources Conservation Warden Paul Sickman reportedly met March 9 to discuss what to do about the docks.
“It was decided that a joint letter from the city attorney and the DNR would be sent citing the laws/regulations and giving a timeline for removal,” a city record of that meeting states.
The council’s Public Works Committee later recommended on a 2-1 vote to proceed with notifying property owners that the docks couldn’t be put in the water this year or had to be removed if they were already in the river.
Bernard and Vanselow voted for the notice to be sent. Morrissette opposed it.
The City Council debated how to proceed Monday night.
City Attorney Catherine Munkittrick said the council has three options. It can order all the private docks removed. It can have a city-owned pier installed and set a policy for its use. Or it can try to find a way to allow the current docks to remain in place.
“If you’re thinking of going that route, you need to flesh it out,” Munkittrick said of authorizing private parties to place docks on city property.
She said the question could be raised why some property owners are allowed to have docks on city property while others aren’t.
Dock owners speak
Five dock owners and two representatives of dock owners encouraged the City Council to find a way to allow the docks to remain in place.
Gerald Klecker said that when he bought his house he was told the dock could remain indefinitely under a grandfather clause. The railroad owned the property when he purchased the house, he said, and never objected to the dock.
Klecker said the city has had a consistent policy of allowing the docks over the years.
Dean Hanson, a more recent resident of First Street, said there has been a dock next to his property for 40 years. He said the replacement of older homes with new ones would suffer if docks are no longer permitted.
Sarah Atkins said the dock near her house was included in the sale price of the home. And when she and Hoggatt replaced the dock with a new one in 2009, no question was raised about whether it was legal.
Atkins read a letter from neighbors who said they had been told by former city parks director Dan Roeglin that the docks were grandfathered in.
Real estate agent Steve Lund said he had lost buyers for a First Street home because of the question of whether the dock could remain in place.
Tom Irwin, attorney Hugh Gwin and Alderperson Morrissette, speaking as a private citizen, also argued for allowing the docks.
Jim Drake, a resident of River Street, and Shirley Drow, a resident of Third Street, took the opposing view.
“Why have an ordinance if you are not going to enforce it, or are only going to enforce it selectly?” Drake asked.
Drow reminded alderpersons that the docks are on city parkland.
“It is my space as a citizen of Hudson as well,” she said.
Council member remarks
Alderperson Yacoub said she favored finding a way to allow the First Street property owners to keep their docks.
“I have some concerns about discrimination when other city property owners don’t have the same right,” Vanselow said. He suggested setting an end date for the docks at some point, whether in a few years or when the house is sold.
TeWinkel, newly elected to the District 4 council seat, likened allowing the docks to allowing a private party to erect a Jungle Gym on a city park.