For Faith Fitzpatrick, the tiny Merrill Springs Park just west of Shorewood Hills on Lake Mendota is an urban oasis.
Fitzpatrick, who lives nearby, visits the quiet park almost daily. "I do a lot of driving for work, so I'll walk down there to get away from it all when I'm not on the road," she says.
But many people in this lakefront neighborhood fear that tranquility will be lost if the city pursues an idea to turn an old cottage there into an overnight rental property.
Last December, the city bought property next to the park for $860,000, roughly doubling its size, says Ald. Mark Clear, who represents the neighborhood. The property's cottage now belongs to the city.
"One idea that's intriguing to me is renting it out on a daily basis, so people can stay overnight on the lakefront," Clear says. "Many people in Madison are not connected to the lakes as well as they could be."
That would require some investment by the city. "It's not in the best condition," Clear says. "It would need some TLC. It's very small. It would be conducive for a couple [to rent]."
But in a couple of neighborhood meetings on the idea, it was obvious most neighbors don't like it, Clear says.
"Many of the concerns that neighbors have are completely legitimate. They're concerned it will turn into a party house. If we were to pursue this, we'd need an operations plan to prevent that."
Neighbors say they're not being elitist in their opposition to overnight rentals. Fitzpatrick says the park is so small - roughly half an acre - that the public would not feel welcome using it if the cottage is being rented.
"That park gets used by a ton of people, mainly walkers and bikers. If they see people [staying in the house] there, they wouldn't feel comfortable using the waterfront themselves."
Clear concedes this point, saying a rental cottage "creates sort of a private use of the park.... Someone staying overnight might feel like it's their park."
Fitzgerald says the park, buffered by the slope it's situated on, is uniquely tranquil. "Those kinds of places are not very common in urban areas," she says, noting that the park is easily accessible by bus and bike. "You get that experience of getting away from the city. That fits into why you wouldn't want to have nighttime cottage renters having parties there."
Parks division staff is now working on a plan, which will have to be approved by the Board of Parks Commissioners (of which Clear is a member). If the cottage isn't turned into a rental, Clear expects it will be torn down. But he would like to give the plan a try, at least on a trial basis.
"If it doesn't work, then we stop," he says. "If we tear it down, we never had a chance to try."