DES MOINES — A prominent Okoboji businessman cannot use his marina to operate a floating lakeside bar that drew complaints from neighbors, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Leo “Butch” Parks violated Okoboji zoning restrictions when he used Okoboji Boat Works to operate the Fish House Lounge — known for karaoke, hog roasts and full-moon parties — from an excursion boat that floated along the shore, the court ruled in a 7-0 decision.
Justice Brent Appel wrote that the city was justified in getting an injunction that prevents Parks from using the marina to support that bar or any others on excursion boats moored to the marina.
The ruling is the high court's third in the decade-long dispute between city officials and Parks, who has long pushed the envelope in promoting boating and entertainment in Okoboji, a regional tourism destination in the northwest corner of Iowa.
Earlier this month, Parks made news for buying and announcing plans to hold cruises on the boat that was part of a 2005 sex scandal involving Minnesota Vikings players.
But the fight over the Fish House Lounge might not be over yet.
Attorney Michael Chozen, who represents the city, said Friday that Parks has moved the floating bar to his nearby property and continues to operate it.
Chozen did not rule out additional enforcement action. He praised the ruling and noted that neighbors still complain about the loud noise at night.
“This is a case about a little resort community ... enforcing its land-use regulations within its corporate boundaries,” he said. “In all of these cases, the city's aim has been to preserve the residential integrity of the neighborhood.”
Parks, who didn't immediately return a message, bought the marina on West Lake Okoboji in 2001. He soon sought to build a bar as part of a remodeling effort, but the city denied him a liquor license.
West Lake Okoboji is the largest in a chain of five connecting lakes and features 20 miles of shoreline, according to the Iowa Great Lakes Association.
The city classified the area around the marina as a lakeshore residential district in the 1970s. But the marina, which dates to 1890, was allowed to continue operating as a business under a special-use permit that grandfathered in existing properties.
In 2006, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the city that a bar would represent an expansion of a “nonconforming use” and granted an injunction outlawing one on the marina.
During further litigation in 2008, the court clarified that using the marina for activities such as “live music, karaoke, hog roasts, and full-moon parties” was also barred, regardless of whether alcohol was sold.
Parks then got creative: He would move the bar a few feet away to the water, outside the city's jurisdiction. The state, which controls the lakebed, granted him liquor licenses to sell alcohol on excursion boats. He opened the Fish House Lounge on one of them in 2008.
Theme parties, entertainment and late-night revelry resumed, but so did complaints from neighbors over the traffic, parking, noise and lewd behavior.
The city sought an injunction in 2010 to shut it down, saying that allowing the marina to provide bathrooms, access and parking for customers was a zoning violation.
A judge granted the injunction, noting the boat rarely cruised the lake and was offering the same kind of entertainment already prohibited by the high court.
On appeal, Parks argued the city had no power to regulate the Fish House since it was floating on the state-regulated lake.
Appel wrote that Parks raised “interesting jurisdictional issues” that ultimately missed the mark because the city was using its power to regulate the land-based property, not the bar. Using the land to support a floating bar “amounts to a zoning violation,” Appel wrote.
The court said the injunction applies to all of Parks' boats — so he can't transfer the bar to another boat on the shoreline — but it doesn't extend to boats moored to docks farther out over the lake.
“We leave for another day whether or under what circumstances the city may assert direct zoning authority over docks extending onto the lake,” Appel said.
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