City Council to explore selling riverfront propertyA divided City Council on Monday night voted to explore selling the riverfront property between Lakefront Park and St. Croix Street to adjacent homeowners so they can continue to have docks in the St. Croix River.
By: Randy Hanson, Hudson Star-Observer
A divided City Council on Monday night voted to explore selling the riverfront property between Lakefront Park and St. Croix Street to adjacent homeowners so they can continue to have docks in the St. Croix River.
The 3-2 decision came after a lengthy and often passionate discussion over what to do about three privately-owned docks that are illegally placed on city park property – and after the failure of two earlier motions on a course of action.
Mayor Alan Burchill sided with alderpersons Mary Yacoub and Kurt TeWinkel in making the tie-breaking vote to explore the sale of the riverfront property on which an asphalt pedestrian and bicycle pathway is located.
The city would maintain an easement for the pathway if the property was sold, the supporters of the motion said.
Alderpersons Rich Vanselow and Lori Bernard opposed the action.
Alderpersons John Hoggatt and Randy Morrissette II recused themselves from the discussion and the decision.
Hoggatt owns one of the docks in question. Morrissette’s parents own one of the houses on the west side of First Street with a back yard abutting the city pathway.
Burchill withdrew himself from the debate of the dock issue the last time it was before the council, but said he had decided that he didn’t need to this time. After the May 30 council meeting, the mayor said one of the property owners that would be affected by the decision was a customer of his insurance agency.
Yacoub’s first motion Monday night to explore selling the park property died for lack of a seconding vote.
Later, a motion by Vanselow, seconded by Bernard, to require that the docks be removed from the river by Oct. 1 of this year failed on a 2-2 vote. It was opposed by Yacoub and TeWinkel.
At the beginning of the discussion, City Attorney Catherine Munkittrick reviewed the highlights of a nine-page written report of her findings of fact regarding the issue.
She said the private docks on the city’s riverfront property have been a reoccurring issue since around 1990, when city officials began discussing development of the pathway. The city purchased the abandoned railroad property in 1988.
Munkittrick said former city parks director Dan Roeglin talked about selling some of the railroad property to adjacent homeowners, but the Park Board decided against it.
A review of city files showed no record of the City Council ever giving permission for the docks, and none of the First Street homeowners have a recorded interest in the city’s riverfront property, Munkittrick reported.
She noted that a city ordinance adopted in 1981 (Sect. 181-13) prohibits anyone “from constructing or maintaining a dock extending from the shoreline of any park or public area unless specific authority has been given by the Common Council.”
The ordinance says an illegal dock can be removed by the city if the owner doesn’t do it within 10 days of receiving a written notice demanding its removal.
“The bottom line is really pretty straightforward, that non-riparian (riverfront) owners don’t have the right to install docks on riparian property,” Munkittrick said.
“In my opinion, the docks are in violation of the ordinance. That’s just where we’re at. I find no legal right for them to be there,” she added later, and said the city could order them to be removed.
Yacoub asked if the city could issue permits allowing the docks.
Munkittrick said the city would have to own and maintain the docks, and the user permits couldn’t be for a period of more than two years.
“The dock permit would not create any property right in use of the dock. It would not attach to the abutting First Street property, so it would not be transferable with the First Street property,” Munkittrick wrote in her findings of fact. “The city would need to create policies and procedures for such a permit system. The city could create some type of lottery system. Regardless of any policy and procedures the city might establish, under state law, the term of any dock permit cannot be more than two years.”
Mayor questions statement
Burchill challenged Munkittrick’s statement that the city would have to own and maintain the docks. He said that Afton-Hudson Cruise Lines built and owns the dock that is home to the Grand Duchess riverboat during the summer months.
Munkittrick said the Army Corps of Engineers issued the permit for that dock before the current state law on docks was adopted.
Also, the cruise line situation is different in that there is a public benefit to having a riverboat available to the public docked in Hudson, the city attorney said.
“The boat brings people into the city of Hudson, which benefits the city. Also, the boat is available for rental to the general public for private cruises. Also, the public can purchase tickets to take a public cruise on the St. Croix,” she wrote in her findings.
Munkittrick said legal issues might prevent selling the riverfront property to the adjacent homeowners.
The sale may be prohibited because the city bought the property with money from park development fees, for use as parkland, she said.
Munkittrick warned the council that if the land is sold to abutting property owners, the city would lose all its riparian rights to it.
“Under Wisconsin law, an easement holder on riparian property has no riparian rights,” she wrote. “Only the title holder has riparian rights. The city would have no right to use or regulate use of the shoreland. It would only be able to use and regulate use of the pathway, and its rights to do that would be limited to the terms of the easement. Public use of the land would be limited to the pathway.”
She added, “It is unlikely that the city would ever be able to recover the riparian rights.”
Vanselow and Bernard were convinced that the city should maintain ownership of the riverfront property and order the docks removed.
“The riverfront is an asset to all of the residents of the city, and we need to manage it that way,” Vanselow said.
Bernard said the discomfort council members felt dealing with the issue is the reason it has dragged on for more than 20 years.
“I can’t defend private docks on public land,” she said.
Several members of the audience also addressed the issue.
Randy Lau, a member of the city’s Park Board, asked if the homeowners’ docks might be considered public docks if they remain in place.
“I’m glad you addressed that,” Munkittrick replied. “The private docks can’t remain on city property.”
She said they are a liability to the city and illegal under the law.
Tom Smith, a resident of Third Street, said Munkittrick had provided commonsense, clear advice on the action the council needed to take.
“It is black and white,” he said.
Department of Natural Resources conservation warden Paul Sickman agreed with Smith.
“Those docks are not legal, even if the city says they are,” Sickman said.
When the council was about to vote on Vanselow’s motion to give the owners until Oct. 1 to remove the docks, Sickman noted that the city ordinance calls for their removal within 10 days of notification.
“If the docks are illegal, the DNR can come in (and have them removed),” he said.
Sarah Atkins, wife of Alderperson John Hoggatt, said the issue was anything but black and white.
Atkins cited Park Board meeting minutes in which former parks director Roeglin was reported to have talked about setting up a permitting process for the river docks and selling some of the former railroad property to the adjacent homeowners.
Atkins said that if the First Street homeowners can’t own St. Croix River docks, then neither can the Afton-Hudson Cruise Lines.
“We need some less opinionated information presented to everyone to make a decision,” she said regarding Munkittrick’s findings.
First Street homeowner Dean Hanson raised an issue regarding the city’s title to the former railroad property.
Munkittrick rebutted it by saying the city merely needed to provide the state Department of Transportation with a legal description of the property so the department could sign off on its first right to buy it.
After Yacoub’s first motion to explore selling the riverfront property failed for lack of a second, it appeared that Vanselow’s motion to order the removal of the docks by Oct. 1 might carry.
The motion failed when TeWinkel joined Yacoub in voting against it.
He said he was leaning toward agreeing with Vanselow on the removal of the docks, but wanted to hear more about the possibility of selling the riverfront property and retaining an easement for the pathway.
“I’m not saying I would vote for it. I just want to be very certain,” TeWinkel said.
Yacoub then moved again to explore the sale of the riverfront property, and TeWinkel seconded the motion.
When Burchill asked whether the city should also consider leasing docks to residents, TeWinkel said he had no interest in that. He said he would withdraw his support for Yacoub’s motion if the leasing option was part of it.
Vanselow said if the riverfront property is put up for sale, everyone should have a right to bid on it.
“I don’t know how you can limit who you want to sell it to,” he said.