In 2006 the city of Superior wanted to turn four acres of vacant land, the last developable spot on Barker’s Island, into tax-generating property. The open land sits between the island marina and a cluster of private homes.

“It’s almost like a gated community,” city council president Ed Anderson said of the Barker’s Island homes. “It appears to be a private community.”

The houses were developed by Jack Culley, president of Sailboats Inc., the private company that manages the city-owned marina.

Marshall Weems, a Superior city planner from 1988 to 1998 turned private developer, offered to build 34 condominiums and 24 townhomes on the vacant land.

Barker’s Island residents raised strong objections to Weems’ proposal, citing environmental, safety and traffic concerns.

“He was originally talking 58 units in a really small area,” said Michelle Johnsted, president of the Barker’s Island Homeowners Association. “It was poor planning from the beginning.”

But back in 1988 the city planned the area for even denser rental housing, according to Weems. “We had it charted for 66 units,” he said.

Slow and bumpy process

Culley objected to Weems’ development being so close to the marina’s 10,000-gallon above-ground fuel tank. Council president Anderson agrees. “I wouldn’t put my house 50 feet from a giant gas tank,” he said.

“There were concerns about safety and utilities,” Weems said. “The city staff said they could handle it. We thought they could.”

Culley went a step beyond obstruction. As an alternative to Weem’s proposal he offered to build six to 12 single family houses on the vacant land, leaving a two-acre buffer between those additional homes and the marina.

It was similar to a proposal he made back in 2000, which the city council turned down. Island residents objected then to Culley’s proposal, saying they wanted to preserve green space.

In 2007, however, those residents came around to Culley’s new proposal, seeing it as preferable to Weems’ denser housing plan. One resident who opposed the 2000 project told him, “I was wrong,” Culley said.

On March 6, the city’s Redevelopment Authority recommended by a 3-2 vote that city council accept Culley’s proposal. But on March 20, the city council discussed the issue in closed session, much to the frustration of island residents. Afterward the council voted for Weems’ proposal 8-1 (Anderson was the lone dissenter) because Weems’ proposal would generate more tax revenue.

The council reaffirmed that support April 4, though this time by a 6-3 vote, directing the Redevelopment Authority to negotiate a development agreement with Weems.

Jamie Schafter resigned from the Redevelopment Authority because of the city’s handling of the process.

“It bothered me that they discussed it in closed session,” he said. “They were hell-bent on putting condos out there. It’s rare that I’ve seen any issues (getting) such full court press. It was go go go from get go…everything’s been fast-tracked.”

Jason Serck, city planner, said the process was anything but rushed.

“We started it in January and had a half dozen public input sessions.

It was slowed down due to scheduling hiccups. Lots of these developments are time sensitive; the more they wait, the more it costs money…We’re talking seven months. That’s pretty slow — you can hear sarcasm in my voice.”

In response to resident concerns, Weems reduced his Barker’s Island project to 38 townhomes and no condos.

At a July 10 Redevelopment Authority meeting, his business partner, Robert Coburn, let slip that their investors wanted the option to rent the townhomes by the week. Weems vaulted to the microphone and tried to downplay the short-term aspect, but the damage was done.

Residents demanded the townhouses have the same 30-day rental minimum as other homes on the island.

Culley said he had learned from owners of Barker’s Island Inn that Weems had approached the hotel about managing short-term rentals at his proposed townhomes.

Weems’ supporters, including city councilors, countered the rental issue was just another wrench to throw in the works, noting homes in Superior outside of Barker’s Island have no such limit.

“It’s typical NIMBY (not in my backyard),” Weems said. “[Islanders] would rather have no development and less traffic.”

Weems’ project went down in defeat on July 17 when the council narrowly favored a development agreement by a 5-3 vote, shy of the six votes needed.

A revised development agreement went to the Redevelopment Authority on Aug. 1, but also failed narrowly. The authority voted 3-2 in favor, shy of the needed four-vote supermajority.

Hotel expansion weighs in

Meanwhile the 112-room Barker’s Island Inn unveiled a $23 million expansion, with groundbreaking expected in November. Owner Oliver Cos. plans to construct 40 condo units, 38 of which can be sublet like hotel rooms.

Residents did not object to the hotel condos, which would be more distant than what Weems had proposed. “They’re completely two different situations,” said Johnsted. “The hotel was very well planned. We don’t have a problem with it.”

Culley also holds the lease to city land surrounding the hotel. Culley said Oliver Cos. informed him in June of its expansion plans. He expressed support, knowing the marina would benefit from the hotel expansion.

But until September, no one had noticed the hotel/convention center expansion would require adjacent city land leased by Culley. “We weren’t even made aware of that until a month ago,” said Seth Oliver, president of Oliver Cos. “We thought it was city land.”

Jeff Vito, director of development and public affairs, said, “We weren’t fully aware what Oliver would need. It had to get into the design phase.”

A deal, at last

The Redevelopment Authority planned a Sept. 4 meeting to reconsider Weems’ proposal, but the city administration canceled it a few hours before the meeting, citing an already full agenda for the day.

Instead the city council held another closed session on Sept. 11, and emerged with another arrangement.

Culley will surrender his lease on five parcels of land around the hotel so it can expand; the city will sell those parcels to the hotel; and the proceeds will be deposited into a Marina Construction Improvement Fund.

In exchange, Culley will receive nearly half the city-owned parcel Weems wanted, two acres next to the marina’s service area.

The new arrangement “solves the space issue raised by residents,” said Anderson.

But it leaves a much smaller space for Weems’ development, whatever it may be. It’s made even narrower because Culley has a 30-foot easement on the cul-de-sac road bordering the strip.

New housing on the parcel will have the same 30-day rental limit as existing housing.

Culley also would give up his lease on an acre of waterfront land to the north of the marina that he now uses for boat cradle storage.

Housing on that parcel will not have the 30-day limit.

Jeff Vito said there is room for Weems to develop something. “He’s wondering exactly what the city wants to see,” Vito said, noting how the city first accepted then rejected Weems’ proposal. “He’s a little gunshy right now.”

Except for the hotel’s involvement, the deal is nearly identical to a land swap Culley proposed in July in a letter to mayor and council.

“We’re delighted it came through,” Culley said.

A sand island with a rocky history

Legend has it Barker’s Island in Superior was born out of a dispute in 1885 between Capt. Charles S. Barker and lumber baron Martin Pattison.

Barker was dredging out Superior Bay. Pattison’s home, now Fairlawn Mansion and Museum, was on the shore. As the story goes, Pattison raised the price of wood whenever Barker was buying. In retaliation Barker dumped the dredging spoils in front of Pattison’s house.

In truth, Barker and Pattison were friends and there’s no evidence the island was born out of acrimony. Barker put the sand there only as a matter a convenience rather than haul it out to the lake. Other operators followed suit, and an island formed by the early 1900s.

Still, the story befits an island mired in continuing controversy over the next century.

For decades the island was a popular destination. “It was the automobile and good roads that stole from Barker’s Island the glory it knew back in the days when Superiorites took a street car to East Fifth Street, and Sixth Avenue and walked to the bay front,” states a 1941 article in the Superior Evening Telegram. “A viaduct and bridge, both since torn down, took people across to the island, which on many Sundays was jammed with swimmers and picknickers.

“That was back in the days before sewage water had polluted the bay and swimming was possible in the warm waters that flowed into the harbor from the St. Louis river.”

In 1945 the local chapter of the Audubon Society determined the city had no legal claim on the island and deemed it a bird sanctuary. The Audubon chapter also concluded the rightful owners were descendants of Native Americans.

In the 1970s the S.S. Meteor Whaleback was parked on the island as a museum ship. Its popularity raised the notion of further development.

Then-mayor Bruce Hagen proposed to bring the island back to its former glory, and more: a hotel, marina, shops, and a swimming beach in cleaner waters.

But the proposal raised the ire of preservationists. The state of Wisconsin challenged the development and the issue went to court, ending with the determination that the city had jurisdiction over most of the island.

As a compromise, 14 acres at the south end were fenced off for the sanctuary. Superior voters overwhelmingly approved the marina and hotel development in 1977.

The city-owned marina opened in 1980, managed by Sailboats Inc., Jack Culley’s company.

Piping plovers, the bird for which the island sanctuary was created, were placed on the Wisconsin Endangered Species list in 1979, owing to development of its coastal beach habitats. Plovers made the federal endangered list in 1985.

The species had not been seen on the island since the 1960s, however, and had nearly disappeared from Wisconsin, said Steve Lavalley, water management officer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Superior.

The state released the Barker’s Island sanctuary to the city and the 14 acres were opened for development. In 1989 Culley and two business partners bought 10 of the 14 acres of land.

By then, Culley had become a close friend and supporter of Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, whom he met in 1987. Thompson appointed Culley to serve on the state’s Tourism Council and the Wisconsin Coastal Management Council.

The first house on Barker’s Island went up with Culley as the resident. Originally the developers planned 46 townhouses. But as they found a market for single-family homes, they reduced the development to 20 townhouses and seven single-family houses.

Culley had a 10-year option to buy the remaining four acres, but it expired in 1999 and the land remained in city ownership.

In 1999, Sailboats Inc.’s 20-year lease was due for renewal. Some city councilors said Culley was getting too sweet a deal, paying less money to the city than he should. As the marina contract was discussed at a September council meeting, Mayor Margaret Ciccone and her staff walked out after a councilor accused them of withholding financial information.

The incident was one of the controversies that lead to Ciccone’s ouster in a recall election. Culley’s lease eventually was renewed.

In a 2001 finance committee meeting, city councilor Ed Erickson said of the marina, “We have no idea what is going on down there.” He also asked, “What about the rumor that [Culley] keeps two sets of books down there?”

Culley sued Erickson for slander, filing a $150,000 claim. He dropped the lawsuit after Erickson read a statement of clarification, asserting he was not making an accusation but raising a question.