Veterans protest Orono’s removal of handicap access to historic island

Orono Mayor Dennis Walsh doesn't want to pay for handicap access docks at Big Island, long a veteran's retreat.

Orono Mayor Dennis Walsh doesn't want to pay for handicap access docks at Big Island, long a veteran's retreat. Google Earth

Big Island is in the middle of Lake Minnetonka, historic home to the Big Island Veterans Camp, and currently managed by the city of Orono. For 80 years, it was a camping and vacation refuge for military families, who would spend summers cruising the lake before disembarking on wheelchair-accessible docks leading to the 56-acre island.

On February 13, the Orono City Council voted unanimously to remove the docks. They didn’t want to keep paying the $8,000 yearly maintenance costs.

“Do we have any idea how often these docks are used, because to be honest, as a boat user, I’ve never used them,” said Councilwoman Victoria Seals. “We would just beach our boat on one side of the island if we were to use them.”

Mayor Dennis Walsh persuaded his colleagues to forego the docks because “Orono is not a regional park operator, so we’re not going to be in the regional park business.” He wanted to think about how Orono could sell it to someone who would pay for its upkeep and policing.

“I’ve been to lots of [Lake Minnetonka islands] with my boys and my girls traipsing around,” Walsh said. “If you wanna go to their islands and traipse around, they’re passive parks, you wade up, you throw your anchor down, you get up and you can go run around all day long. Maybe even get on the rope swing at Boy Scouts Island.”

But veterans groups say the point is that many of their members cannot simply climb up to shore, traipse around, and swing from ropes. Because they’ve lost those abilities in service to the country, they need the docks to get on the island.

Dean Ascheman, chairman of the Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans Trust Fund, criticized the city for voting on the issue without giving the public advance notice. He says the council’s decision violates the terms of the 2006 sale of Big Island from the Veterans Camp to the city, which dictates that veterans must always have access to the island.

“This decision was done without due diligence and is a complete slap in the face to our state’s veteran community,” Ascheman said. “We intend to fight this until those docks are put back.”

According to the 2006 Big Island land agreement, one of the park’s management goals was to “Recognize, acknowledge, and embrace the special relationship that America’s military veterans have with the park property, and encourage their use of the park in a manner consistent with its mission, vision and goals.”

At the time, the Lake Minnetonka Association – for which Mayor Walsh’s wife Amanda Walsh served as then-secretary – submitted a letter in support of this agreement.

“We are willing to assist the city in its development and implementation of user guidelines to assure that future use would be managed to maintain the natural resource and provide for the maximum benefit to the public in a non-discriminating way,” the letter reads.

Veterans plan to attend the Orono City Council meeting on February 27, at 7 p.m., to ask the council to reverse its vote.

It’s a controversy that may have been avoided had the council listened to City Administrator Jessica Loftus last week, when she suggested that they ask for input from people who actually used the island prior to voting.