It's quiet time now at the Latsch Island boathouse community.

Most owners are spending the winter at homes on solid ground. The boathouses freeze in place until the spring thaw.

March brings noisy bustling as owners batten down the hatches and strengthen moorings for the inevitable spring flood, said Rod Hoesley boathouse association president.

Hoesley, 51, said the unconventional Mississippi River neighborhood has come a long way since being outcast by the community and government in the 1980s and 1990s. The city threatened to raise mooring fees. Outsiders labeled boathouse dwellers as outlaws.

But in 1997, after years of battling government, the boathouse community formed an agreement with the city and helped enact a state law that legitimized its existence and allowed renovations with special permits, Hoesley said.

This year, an amendment to state law allowing boathouse building permits had no effect on the Latsch Island boathouse community because it was nine years ahead of the curve.

"Thank goodness we're finally at a time where we can live in our boathouses and not battle the DNR or the city of Winona or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," Hoesley said.

Although renovations are allowed, few owners request them, he said.

"You have limited space down there," he said. "One of our rules is that you keep a certain amount of space" - four feet - "around and between boathouses."

Today, tourists seek out Latsch Island as a known Winona curiosity. A Winona State University student completed a historical study of the village, helped by Hoesley's three-ring binder of records. Hoesley compares Latsch Island boathouses to those in Amsterdam or Sausalito, Calif.

"Of course, (those) go for half a million dollars, but we don't want to become that either," he said.

Hoesley and two friends bought a "tin-walled boat garage" there in 1972. It burned down April 1, 1977. Hoesley remodeled it and lived there year-round from 1978 until 1990.

Today, his boathouse is a summer cottage. Hoesley has an A-frame bluffside home across the river in Wisconsin and teaches middle school students in Rushford, Minn. Latsch Island has 101 sites. About 10 owners live there year-round.

"They help keep an eye on everybody else's places," Hoesley said.

There is little turnover. Changes in owners happen by word of mouth, not by advertised property sales. No one can own more than one boathouse site.

"We don't want somebody monopolizing," he said.

Reporter Jeff Dankert can be reached at (507) 453-3513 or e-mail jdankert@winonadailynews.com.

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