Large turnouts at meetings and open houses by opponents made it clear that the trail proposal faced passionate opposition. Working in committee, the County Board agreed to appoint an advisory group that would have until August to come up with a plan with more popular support.
Nearly 350 park users turned out for the open houses. Half of all comments received on the long-range plan were opposed to a paved trail through the heart of the park.
“Thank you for opening up the process,” said Laura Hedlund of Eagan.
Although the county thought it was getting sufficient public comment on the plan by sending it through its newly reconstituted planning commission, park users said repeatedly that they did not feel heard.
Commissioner Chris Gerlach of Apple Valley said that after spending three hours at one open house listening to comments, he concluded that the vast majority of people disliked the route that would take the proposed trail through the center of the park and that they felt left out of the selection of a preferred route.
“There is a big difference between having front-end input and back-end input,” Gerlach said. On the front end, people feel they are building something, whereas on the back end they are just reacting, he said. “We could have been more sensitive to that.”
Commissioner Tom Egan agreed. “We seem to be misaligned with the public at this point.” He said he did not want the integrity of the county to be impugned because “we all want to come up with the best park system we can.”
The commissioners agreed unanimously to appoint an advisory panel to present a plan with more popular support by August.
Largest county park
Lebanon Hills, in Eagan and Apple Valley, is the county’s largest, most popular park. The proposed master plan — a guide for park development — calls for a 6.5-mile paved trail through the park connecting activity centers along with 1.5 miles of paved loops around two lakes. County park staffers have said the paved trail would add popular activities — running, walking and biking — to the park year-round. The plan also calls for 25.4 miles of unpaved hiking trails, up about six miles from the existing 19 miles. Counting mountain bike trails, horse trails, and hiking trails there are now about 40 miles of unpaved trails in the park.
The route originally proposed for the paved trail wound through the center of the park. Last week the parks staff presented a revised route that would keep the paved trail close to the perimeter, within view or hearing distance of surrounding streets. That would make it less pleasant for bikers and walkers but would reduce the intrusion of the trail into the park. No action was taken on the revised route.
Another round of public involvement is important for the county to build credibility for the master plan because such plans are in place for a long time, said Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler of Inver Grove Heights.
The route and width of the trail are expected to be a focus of the new advisory panel. Commissioners said they will each appoint two members to the panel plus additional at-large members.
The County Board will decide how far back to rewind the planning process on Feb. 25. In a preliminary discussion, commissioners Krause, Gerhlach and Liz Workman said they like the idea of building a trail connecting the main attractions of the park.
Krause said he would want the connector trail to be paved, as proposed, because that would make it accessible to all users of the park. He said his wife has a handicap and, without a paved trail, “no way in the world that my wife could go into that park. She has as much right in that park as anybody else.”
Other commissioners felt that starting with the assumption of a paved trail would defeat the purpose of bringing citizens in for more input.
Irv Parker of Farmington made that point to commissioners last week. “My issue is should there be a connector trail, and why is it a given that that is there” when half of the comments received by the county opposed a paved trail, Parker said. “I think that is the public issue.”
Bernard Friel of Mendota Heights said he bikes, skis, hikes and takes photographs in the park. “It is not a pristine wilderness, but it does have wilderness qualities.” He urged board members to “retain the wilderness qualities in the park” and asked them to appoint park users to the advisory group.