City wants to remove these permanent shanties for the river walk project
Mark Whitty thinks of his family’s river shanty more like a good friend than anything.
When he was in his 20s, the 61-year-old Oshkosh resident would finish work at Leach Co., pick up a 12-pack of beer and make a beeline for the small shanty built on pilings on the south shore of the Fox River and connected to William Steiger Park by a small drawbridge. As the sun would set, he grilled catfish or white bass (when the river still teemed with it), enjoyed life with whomever happened to stop down, watched boat traffic inch by and basked in a serene setting that remains surprisingly unchanged more than three decades later.
“Up until they built the offices behind us, it didn’t even feel like you were in the city,” Whitty said. “It was my life down here. I just know I don’t want to leave.”
Beauty, though, has always been in the eye of the beholder.
And where Whitty and three generations of his family see a long-standing tradition and slice of long-forgotten river history, Oshkosh city officials see a impediment to future development in the area.
Former Oshkosh City Manager Bill Freuh never shied away from referring to the structures as “eyesores” and led the charge in the ’80s and ’90s to buy and tear down as many of the structures as possible. He was quite successful: Where there used to be dozens of the shacks up and down the river, only four now remain and they’ve begun to show their age.
And those that are left just happen to be near where the city plans to extend the river walk through Steiger Park and where plans are being worked on to redevelop the nearby Boat Works property. Oshkosh Community Development Director Allen Davis said ultimately, the city would like the structures removed.
“We’re interested in acquiring them to remove them,” Davis said. “When the city identified Steiger Park as the next phase of the river walk, that kind of began the dialogue about these structures once again. And when we look at redeveloping the Boat Works property, I think these structures would stifle any potential redevelopment plans.”
A complicated issue
But Davis’ straightforward goals — identify property owners, assess their long-term intent for the shacks and take steps toward their acquisition — have become mired in challenges and headaches.
First, City Attorney Lynn Lorenson said the city has not been able to identify who owns one of the shacks and all of them have limited, if any, documentation of ownership.
“We have no access leases or agreements or memoranda regarding these structures,” Lorenson said. “Some documents indicate some previous structures had leases from the railroad when the rail bridge went through there. We’ve asked the owners for documentation now.”
Second, because the structures are located in the river, the city has little ground on which it can force the owners to sell since the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has oversight of waterways and structures in them, said George Curtis, the Oshkosh attorney who is representing the Whittys and two other owners.
“We’re still trying to assess exactly what we have here,” Lorenson said. “We’re still gathering information. Some of them may be on pilings. Some may be floating. And those answers will change the analysis of our options. We’d like to work with them and come to a reasonable solution.”
Curtis said conversations with the city have been amicable thus far and everyone involved hopes to avoid litigation. But the city’s desire to demolish the structures and at least some of the owners’ desire to stay mean a court case could be inevitable.
“I don’t think any of the owners are hostile toward the city’s plans. I think the city is proceeding cautiously to see what can be solved without litigation,” Curtis said. “But if they decide to (try and acquire them) through litigation, they’re going to have some fight on their hands.”
Davis said any action the city would take toward acquisition of the properties would begin with a Redevelopment Authority resolution, but he said a lot of the basic issues need to be resolved before that can happen.
“I’d like to get it done this year, the sooner the better, but I don’t have a specific timeframe,” Davis said. “And regardless, we want to be sure to treat all four property owners fairly.”
Whitty said he just hopes his children have a chance to enjoy the shack his father bought for $450 in 1960.
“I want to stay here and would like to see my kids take it,” he said. “My brother is 73 and starting to slow down. I know it’s going to happen to me, too. But we’re fortunate to have a place like this. Some people say this is an eyesore, I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder.”
Lake News: City considers clearing shanties for trail work.