Blaine officials have delivered a new and unwelcome message to an upscale neighborhood on the edge of a prized wetland: The tree cutting must go on.
The news has shocked neighbors still reeling from last year's controversial tree removals and set the stage for more debate about the remaining trees — which have become, as Mayor Tom Ryan puts it, "a hotbed of trouble."
A year ago, city officials stoked neighborhood ire when crews clear-cut much of the wooded area on city-owned land to help restore the Blaine Wetland Sanctuary, 500 acres stretching north of 109th Avenue and west of Lexington Avenue.
Homeowners bordering the wetland's northwestern boundary decried the tree culling, saying city officials had failed to communicate how many trees would be removed and lamenting the loss of a coveted privacy buffer.
City leaders soon halted the cutting, apologized to neighbors and began exploring options for some replanting near homeowners' property lines. At one point, city officials considered spending up to $100,000 for landscaping.
Now officials say that not only must the tree culling resume, but that replanting is likely off the table. Tree removal is expected to begin next winter.
"The truth of the matter is that the trees should have been taken out all along," Ryan said. "The rest of them have got to come down."
The tree cutting is part of the city's effort to restore the land to its original state before the area was settled. Restoration involves ridding the wetland of invasive species so that native plants can grow, including rarities such as the lance-leaved violet and twisted yellow-eyed grass.
But neighbors are critical of what they describe as an abrupt reversal in light of earlier city pledges. They say they are hoping to find a middle ground.
Their main request: That a buffer of trees be left between the wetland sanctuary and the homes situated along its perimeter. A boardwalk attracts visitors to the area, and additional trails and a nature center are planned.
"I can't imagine they'll enjoy walking the pathway and looking over the grassland into the back of everybody's houses," said neighbor Donald Karas, a retired general contractor.
Residents also are worried about hits to their property values, in an area where homes can sell for more than $500,000. They say the city's dealings in this portion of the wetland have derailed an effort they otherwise applaud to preserve a green oasis in a city booming with development.
"We're disappointed in the way they operate. They tell you one thing and then go do something else," Karas said. "We just can't trust them."
For the city, big dollars are at stake in the form of wetland credits through a state wetland banking program that could generate an estimated $7 million for Blaine in coming years, according to city officials. The credits can be bought by property owners who develop or remove wetlands elsewhere.
City leaders say they recently discovered that failing to clear away the trees as originally planned, or replanting others, could jeopardize the wetland credits.
"From my understanding, it's an all-or-nothing agreement," Council Member Julie Jeppson said. "This was a big blow."
So far the city has spent about $1.4 million on wetland restoration work, said Rebecca Haug, Blaine's water resources manager.
The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are overseeing the work, Haug said. The city also has a permit through the Rice Creek Watershed District.
"These aren't permits that can be negotiated," she said. "It's not a contract."
Neighbors aren't so convinced. It's why they've requested to see copies of the permits and in recent weeks have been poring over site maps and documents related to the project, worried that some trees may be slated for removal in places not tied to wetland credits.
Some question why replanting was pitched as a remedy in the first place if the permits forbade such work all along.
"It feels deceitful," said neighbor Kevin Bross. "I just have a feeling it's about money more than the experience of the residents and the people on the trails."
When it comes to conservation efforts in wetland or prairie landscapes, work that involves a chain saw or wood chipper can be a tough sell.
But proponents of Blaine's wetland work say the tree cutting is worthwhile, given the environmental value of the site.
"This is a great treasure," said Mary Jo Truchon, a member of Blaine's Natural Resources Conservation Board. "There are things that grow out there that grow up in the Boundary Waters and no place else."