At least nine people will need to find a new place to live and about 20 others will need to find a winter home for their boats after receiving a letter Thursday requiring them to get their houseboats out of the water.

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Dennis Smalley

Dennis Smalley, La Crosse Boat Harbor Neighborhood

“Now everybody is scrambling who has boats in the water, whether you’re a live-aboard or you wanted to freeze your boat in,” said Dennis Smalley, spokesman for the La Crosse Boat Harbor Neighborhood. “I don’t know if it’s shocking, but certainly it puts a lot of people in a financial hardship or time-constraint hardship.”

The marina, at 1500 Joseph Houska Drive, has been at the center of a legal predicament after the city began evicting former operator Steve Mills last year, accusing him of defaulting on the terms of his lease. A judge ruled in May that the company cannot assume a new lease for the city’s harbor, leaving the city without an agreement to operate the facility in 2018. There also are updates needed to bring the docks up to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources standards.

The city allocated $1.8 million in October to replace the existing marina and has been moving forward with designs to remove the noncompliant Styrofoam floats and reconfigure the marina, as well as make it more handicapped accessible.

The city wants Rupel Lewandowski Holdings LLC to remove the docks and other assets by the end of November so work can begin as soon as possible, Mayor Tim Kabat said.

“The most cost-effective way is for all the docks and the vessels to be out of the water so the new marina can be installed,” Kabat said.

It’s easier and cheaper to do the work on the ice in the winter, the mayor said.

“When the spring comes and things thaw, it’s all in place, so they just connect it,” he said.

Rupel Lewandowski Holdings, owned by Chris Rupel and Rick Lewandowski, finalized its purchase of the harbor assets Monday and has expressed interest in operating the marina.

According to the removal letter received by boaters, which was signed by Lewandowski, the company does not have a lease with the city and was informed by the city this week that it needed to have its newly purchased assets off of city property by Dec. 1. The letter apologizes for the inconvenience but serves notice that all boats need to be removed immediately and that the company has begun removing the docks.

Without removing the boats and subsequently the docks, Kabat said, the city can’t guarantee the work will be done by May 1, the start of next year’s boating season. However, with the recent cold snap and windy, rainy weather, pulling the boats out isn’t going to be easy.

“It’s not like your fishing boat, where you’ve got your trailer in your garage and back it into the water, load your boat and take it home,” Smalley said. “That’s not how it works.”

Most houseboat owners don’t have their own trailers, and it’s a time-consuming process for the few companies who do such removals. Smalley estimated four to five boats could be pulled in one day under perfect conditions, but wind and rain makes it difficult. It’s also not cheap — costing $11 per foot — which can add up quickly, with some boats up to 50 feet long.

“The whole timing of it, the short notice and trying to figure out what to do has put a lot of fear and anxiety into a lot of the boaters,” Smalley said.

Once the boats are out of the water, finding a place to park them won’t be easy.

“Where is everybody going to go? They’re going to have to go somewhere,” Dick McKim said.

McKim has lived at the Isle la Plume marina since July 2008. He and his wife, Pam, sold their home and moved into their houseboat year-round after their children were out of the house.

“We’re trying to figure out what to do and what’s going on,” McKim said.

Living on the water isn’t uncommon, even in places where the river freezes. While winterizing a houseboat means keeping it in place, there are plenty of heating options to keep the inside comfortable. Both the people who live there year-round and those who simply freeze their boats in the harbor pay for a slip lease from May through October and a second lease for November through April.

“We were all kind of surprised,” said TJ Ullery, who has lived at the marina for more than three years. “I have no real succinct plan on what I’m going to do.”

Ullery, who lives with his three dogs and a pet snake, wasn’t opposed to taking his boat out of the marina or the new docks, as long as there’s a plan in place for him and his neighbors.

“You can pull my boat out. I just need somewhere to go,” Ullery said.

He hopes the city will consider a dock replacement that slows down its timeline and replaces them in parts.

“It just seems like it’s all being done way too fast and kind of backward,” Ullery said.

Part of the challenge from the city’s perspective, Mayor Kabat said, has been its longtime removal from the day-to-day operations. Mills operated the marina for nearly 40 years, holding all of the leases and agreements.

“We have no official information that there are people who live there year round,” Kabat said.

The city has no agreements with anyone to reside in the harbor year-round, he added.

McKim was amazed to hear that from the mayor Friday.

“This is my address. It’s on my driver’s license. I’ve got a mailbox outside, and I get mail here,” McKim said.

“It’s not like your fishing boat, where you’ve got your trailer in your garage and back it into the water, load your boat and take it home. That’s not how it works.” Dennis Smalley, spokesman for the La Crosse Boat Harbor Neighborhood
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Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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