Despite an outpouring of opposition from about 670 people across the metro, Dakota County commissioners approved a controversial plan Tuesday to add a paved trail and other amenities at Lebanon Hills Regional Park.
Visitors to the 2,000-acre park, located in Apple Valley and Eagan, treasure the wilderness feel of the largely undeveloped land. Over the past two months, parkgoers — from residents who live nearby to visitors from Germany — called or wrote to county officials, saying it should be preserved, without pavement, for future generations.
After hearing a wave of concerns, board members scaled back some infrastructure plans. But the majority said the paved path is necessary to meet the needs of elderly and disabled community members. County officials stressed that the master plan for the park’s future also improves natural resources and encourages environmental stewardship.
Of the 690 people who commented on the plan, only 3 percent supported it. Most of the negative comments centered on the 10-foot-wide paved trail through the park.
“Your motto at Lebanon Hills is “Forever Wild” … What is “Forever Wild” about pavement?” Terry Baumgartner wrote.
“Should you proceed with this folly, there is no turning back,” David and Janet Zens wrote.
“The comments were so clear,” park user Laura Hedlund said after Tuesday’s vote. “It’s amazing how they can ignore that type of clarity. We have so few open spaces. We don’t need more asphalt.”
The plan will be up for final approval next week, but commissioners are expected to stick with their decision, which followed more than an hour of public comment.
This was the second round of public comment on the plan. After a similar outcry last year, commissioners decided not to vote on the plan and formed a citizen committee to review it and give feedback. Numerous changes were made based on the input.
The planned 6-mile paved trail, originally slated to cut through the center of Lebanon Hills, was moved closer to the park’s edge. A paved loop around Holland Lake was eliminated. Plans to expand a picnic area at Jensen Lake were scaled back. The changes reduced the plan’s cost by about $2.5 million, to $28.5 million over the next 15 to 20 years, according to county staff.
Commissioners made additional tweaks Tuesday, including voting down the addition of a lighted ski loop and camper cabins. They put changes at the Camp Sacajawea retreat center on hold until a study is completed and prioritized invasive species removal.
Commissioner Chis Gerlach said the decision was a compromise.
“When no side has everything, you’ve probably arrived at a balanced compromise,” he said.
The vast majority of Dakota County residents did not weigh in on the plan, he said.
“How do you interpret silence? Content? OK?” Gerlach said.
Commissioner Tom Egan said opponents cannot be written off as a vocal minority. His friends and organizations he respects vehemently oppose the plan, Egan said. He was one of three commissioners on the seven-person board who voted against the 6-mile trail.
Holly Jenkins, who helped rally opposition, said residents will turn to legislators if the plan is formally approved. The county plans to use state Legacy Amendment funds to develop the trail, which she believes is improper.