Dakota County will give a new citizens advisory panel until the end of this year to present a recommendation about the future of Lebanon Hills Regional Park, including whether it should have a new trail.

Those who want to serve on the 14- to 20-person panel have until March 28 to apply. County Commissioners will make appointments April 8.

By convening a citizens panel and rewinding the planning process, commissioners are addressing public opposition to the proposed park development plans that had been moving toward final approval.

The biggest point of controversy has been a proposal to build an asphalt "connector trail" between key features of the park. Opponents say a prominent paved trail would disrupt the park's wilderness feel, but the county has argued that it would provide new recreational opportunities and better access for the disabled.

Nearly 350 park users turned out for open houses on the plan this winter, and half of all master plan comments received by the county opposed a paved trail through the heart of the park. The park, in southern Eagan and bordering Apple Valley and Rosemount, is the county's largest at 2,000 acres and attracts far more visitors than any other county park.

Now that the opponents have made their point and county commissioners have agreed to more shaping of the plans by the public, the discussion has centered on how to create an advisory process that will satisfy passionate park users.

At last week's County Board meeting, Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler of Inver Grove Heights labored over language to make the board's directive to the new advisory panel as open-ended as possible.

A directive saying the connector trail should be "accessible and appealing" assumes that there would be a paved trail, leaving the impression that the group could not come to its own conclusions and making a mockery of the process, Schouweiler said.

Board Chairwoman Liz Workman of Burnsville said she would not want to remove mention of an accessible and appealing connector trail because "to remove that means there will be no discussion of the connector trail because it's not included in the scope of work" for the advisory panel. She said has heard from many people who are excited about the prospect of walking through the park and around the park lakes on a new trail.

Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord of South St. Paul said the board does have to give some directives. "This is an advisory panel, and it behooves us to tell them what we need advice on. And what we need advice on is a connector trail. I don't see anything being predetermined."

The board settled on wording saying that the advisory panel would "consider" a connector trail. That means, board members said, that a "no-build'' option could be considered along with other options for a connector trail.

Commissioner Chris Gerlach of Apple Valley said the point of the new master plan is to update plans adopted in 2001, which park users have said they preferred to the currently proposed version. The 2001 plan had a connector trail in it, Gerlach said. "There is going to be some kind of trail," he said.

A park user at the meeting made the point that the connector trail included in the 2001 master plan was a soft-surface trail that followed the perimeter of the park — very different from the paved regional-style bike and walking trail that showed up in the current plans. Another park user said that removing invasive buckthorn from the park is a higher priority than building new features.

Public comments generally conveyed a negative tone, leading Gerlach to ask repeatedly for those in attendance to make suggestions if they were not satisfied with the county's new attempt on the plans. "My fear is that we are going to put this committee in place but people won't be satisfied with it, and we are back to where we are now," Gerlach said. What, he asked, could the board add to give people the sense that "we can work with this"?

Holly Jenkins of Eagan, a leader of Wilderness in the City group that played a key role in marshaling public opinion against the paved trail, said the appointees will be critical. It's important that the panel has members who use the park, Jenkins said. "To leave it in the hands of people who don't know the park is a concern."

Each commissioner plans to appoint two members to the panel and then add at-large members approved by the entire board. In an attempt to make sure the panel represents a cross section of interests, board members will look over each other's appointees.

Commissioner Mike Slavik of Hastings brought laughter to the discussion when he said he had been contacted by two people who want the county to just sell Lebanon Hills. Slavik said he will not be appointing them.