Orono City Council votes to keep docks on Big Island after veterans, community speak up

Hundreds of Minnesota veterans and their families and concerned residents packed Orono City Hall on Feb. 23 to express their dissatisfaction with a vote to remove the Big Island docks. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer) Hundreds of Minnesota veterans and their families and concerned residents packed Orono City Hall on Feb. 23 to express their dissatisfaction with a vote to remove the Big Island docks. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer) The Orono City Council voted Feb. 23 to keep the Big Island docks after previously approved to remove them on Feb. 13. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer) A Disabled American Veteran member hands out forget-me-nots to the Orono City Council at the Feb. 23 meeting. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer) Thirty-six veterans from the Disabled American Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans and veteran residents from the Augustana Care facility in Burnsville were taken on a Lake Minnetonka boat tour last year by Tonka Bay Marina owner Gabriel Jabbour. They got to visit the site of the former Big Island Amusement Park and Veterans Camp. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer)
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Thirty-six veterans from the Disabled American Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans and veteran residents from the Augustana Care facility in Burnsville were taken on a Lake Minnetonka boat tour last year by Tonka Bay Marina owner Gabriel Jabbour. They got to visit the site of the former Big Island Amusement Park and Veterans Camp. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer)

Vote reverses Feb. 13 vote to not provide access to the island

 By Adam Quandt
Laker & Pioneer

After a 5-0 vote Feb. 13 by the Orono City Council for the city to no longer provide dock access on Big Island, local veterans and other community members jumped in opposition.

These docks, which were costing the city $8,000 a year, were voted to be removed on Feb. 13 because the Orono City Council said that Big Island should operate as a regional park similar to Three Rivers Park properties on other island. None of Three Rivers Park’s regional parks on other islands have docks.

Big Island docks. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer)
Big Island docks. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer)

Veterans and non-veterans packed into both the council chambers and the hallway outside of the chamber for the council’s Feb. 27 meeting, to voice their displeasure with the council’s decision to remove the docks.

At the request of those in the audience, the agenda item that included the docks discussion was quickly moved from the bottom to the top of the list.

Veteran groups that were present at the meeting included Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans Trust Fund, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Disabled American Veterans, Shorewood American Legion Clarence Clofer Post 259, Lake Minnetonka VFW Post 5919 and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Representatives of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Water Patrol, Three Rivers Park District and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, who are all involved with the island, were not represented at the meeting and it is unknown if the groups have been notified of the issue.

Those in attendance voiced their concern with the loss of the docks, with each speaker was followed with thunderous applause from the crowd.

Local marina owner Gabriel Jabbour, who stores the docks for free, expressed his dissatisfaction with the city council’s Feb. 13 vote, despite the fact it was only a discussion point in addition to City Administrator Jessica Loftus “strongly advised” the city notify all the stakeholders involved and host a public input meeting. Jabbour said as one of the stakeholders, he was not notified of the city’s wishes to remove the docks.

“I’m absolutely dumbfounded with all the recourses the city has, the knowledge, the engineers, the marina owner, the dock installers that (you) didn’t reach out to us and say explain to us what you had in mind when this happened,” Jabbour said. “We just arbitrary and right away made a decision item that was for discussion only … There was no hint of a commitment made to the veterans.”

Jabbour and others said that the council’s vote on Feb. 13 violated open meeting laws.

Every year Jabbour takes hundreds of veterans to Big Island on a Lake Minnetonka boat excursion. To learn more about these activities, visit bit.ly/2mfLXFV.

Dean Ascheman, Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans Trust Fund and former Veterans Camp Board member, took to the podium to talk the council and the audience through the history of veterans and the island.

“I was amazed at what happened in a meeting two weeks ago,” Ascheman said. “I couldn’t believe that a motion was made to remove the docks and sell them. It’s the wrong thing to do. It’s going backwards when it comes to accessibility.”

Ascheman then asked the council to rethink their action and to make things better for the veterans who use the park.

“In regards to the recent council vote to remove the Big Island Park dock access, we would like to speak on behalf of the veterans and their families, local residents and the community as a whole who like to enjoy Big Island Park in its natural state,” Laura Hotvet, Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, wrote in a letter to the council. “The chamber strongly urges the Orono City Council and staff to reconsider the decision to remove the docks. This not only impedes the ability of many people to have access to the beautiful park, but also goes against the original agreement made between the veterans group and the city leaders of Orono that was made at the time of the sale.”

Orono Mayor Dennis Walsh. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer)
Orono Mayor Dennis Walsh. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer)

After veterans from various communities and community members spoke of their grievances with the council, the crowd began asking the council to make a motion to keep the docks.

“The action that was taken at the last city council meeting, I find kind of mind boggling,” said Bill Cochrane, vice chair of Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans. “The council needs to restore the maintenance fees for the docks. It needs to stay a line item.”

“It’s about to discussing a possible alternative,” Councilmember Richard Crosby said following a heated exchange with a speaker. “If it doesn’t work, then we can discuss that too. We’re open to the discussion.”

After hearing more and more speakers, community members once again asked for a motion from the council to keep the docks.

“These people gave a commitment to this country and gave their word,” Jay Nygard said in regards to the veterans. “The City of Orono gave its word to these people…it’s time for our city to stand up to its word.”

“We’re not talking about not putting docks there,” Mayor Dennis Walsh said in response to a speaker. Despite a motion from Councilmember Aaron Printup which he stated, “I would make a motion to no longer provide dock access to Big Island.”

The motion passed with a 5-0 vote.

Mayor Walsh later said that the intent was to bring the general public together with the city to figure out how to best utilize the island.

“We maybe didn’t have the perfect communication from interpretation to intent,” Walsh said. “This was more of a communications or lost in translation issue.”

Orono Councilmember Victoria Seals. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer)
Orono Councilmember Victoria Seals. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer)

Later in the meeting, Councilmember Victoria Seals made a motion to keep the current docks, which was passed 5-0.

Motions by Walsh to accept private donations to go towards the docks and island upkeep and to create a Big Island committee for future progress in bettering the island followed Seals’ motion.

The committee would include members of the parks and planning commissions to help review the future of the dock.

The donations were accepted even though many Orono residents voiced their support of having their tax dollars cover the costs of the docks. They also said the costs should be included every year in Orono’s budget.

“Things were remedied in the end and we will try to be more clear in the future,” Walsh said.

Contact Adam Quandt at adam.quandt@ecm-inc.com. Contributed by Paige Kieffer.