Nearly 40 activists showed up at a recent St. Paul City Council hearing in matching T-shirts with "Friends of Lilydale" printed across their chests in blue.

They testified about park benches -- four of them. The group's support for the placement of the benches at Lilydale Regional Park came after four years of wrangling with the city Parks and Recreation Department.

Some said the T-shirt brigade wasn't as much about park benches as a demonstration of unity on larger park issues. Others, however, question if this isn't just a tiny group with a loud voice trying to block wide use of the park.

At the core of the dispute is a planned $14 million renovation over the next several years of the park, which stretches along the floodplain on the south shore of the Mississippi River east of the Interstate 35E bridge toward downtown St. Paul. With funding expected to come from several sources, the city had intended to proceed over the next few years based on a community-endorsed master plan.

The city still plans to proceed with road and utility work, although, under pressure from activist Jon Kerr, the Parks and Recreation Department agreed to conduct a "discretionary" environmental review. Kerr had begun circulating a petition to compel a review.

Parks officials say they don't expect to find problems, but Kerr already is raising more issues. Within hours of his appearance with a phalanx of supporters at the council meeting, Kerr posted an online laundry list of criticisms and he continued to do so in following days.

He said he wants to know the ramifications of more "paved, impervious surfaces in the Mississippi floodplain, increases in vehicle traffic and noise, possible water quality impacts on nearby Pickerel Lake and impacts on wildlife."

He also was worried about habitat: recent claimed sightings of the threatened Blanding's turtles in the area as well as river otters, a bald eagle nest, coyote and wild turkey habitats, Kerr wrote.

Parks and Recreation spokesman Brad Meyer said a "small number" of residents who voted for the plan three years ago are now raising objections.

"We've got a responsible community-driven plan that maintains the natural beauty of the park, while enhancing access for the community. ... Although we've already addressed a number of environmental impacts, we'll likely proceed with additional environmental studying as these projects progress."

He and others noted that the park's plan was approved by a task force, by the City Council in 2009 and by the Metropolitan Council in 2010.

Bob Spaulding of the Friends of the Mississippi River served as the co-chairman of the task force. He said the panel addressed concerns by scaling back facilities, eliminating two of three picnic shelters and half of the proposed parking.

"We've defined a responsible and workable design balance for the park, explicitly and implicitly embraced by a substantial majority of the task force's participants," he said.

No obvious solution

Council Member Dave Thune, who encouraged Kerr and the activists, said the differences are over roads vs. trails and a dog park. He said he doesn't know what the solution is, but that it was important for the residents to let "people know they're interested."

He acknowledges that the community approved the master plan. "In hindsight they wish they had not agreed so quickly. Now they're boxed in because they thought other things were going to happen," Thune said.

"They were under the belief they were going to be designing a trail system; the neighbors feel instead what they've gotten is a plan for a major road which will increase traffic and speed. They'd like to see it dial- ed back."

Thune said he doesn't think the activists are trying to sabotage the project, but he added, "this will never be resolved unless the neighbors get the respect that's due them."

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson