Washington County tackles headaches from Lake Elmo Park Reserve growth

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2013 - 10:18 AM

The popularity of Lake Elmo Park Reserve means big changes ahead, including more sheriff’s office deputies.

The Lake Elmo Park Reserve swim pond makes a splash every summer with growing crowds. But because of its success, it’s also becoming a headache for Washington County.

Crime, traffic congestion and lack of access for people with disabilities were among problems cited in a county-funded study of the swim pond, which often draws three times its original capacity on a single day. County officials described the problems as unintended consequences of being one of the most popular summer attractions in the metro area.

“People love the pond and keep coming in higher and higher numbers every year,” said John Elholm, who oversees county parks. “We get a lot of people coming for large family picnics and [they] don’t go in the water.”

High on the list of concerns presented in the study were cramped restrooms, where only a few toilets are available for the hundreds of people visiting the pond at any one time. The restrooms aren’t connected to sewer lines but instead to septic systems.

Don Theisen, the county’s public works manager, described the condition of the women’s restroom at the swim pond after a particularly heavy day of use last summer: “It’s unbelievable. It’s not humane. What do you expect when you ask so many people to use the restroom?”

Commissioner Ted Bearth, after hearing a presentation on the park study last week, said he was shocked at the size of restroom facilities in proportion to the crowds.

“That’s a Third World proposition out there, and we’re much better than that,” he said.

As crowds grow, so have conflicts. The sheriff’s office documented 470 incidents in the 2,165-acre park last year, most related to the swim pond. That compared with 60 incidents in the county’s Big Marine Park Reserve and 84 in St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park.

Sheriff Bill Hutton said he wants to hire a full-time deputy and two half-time deputies who would patrol only county parks. Currently, the Lake Elmo park staffers have to summon a deputy from outside the park if enforcement action is needed.

Hutton said last week that he and other sheriff’s office supervisors — “every able body” — have patrolled county parks on holidays to help with crowds.

Commissioner Gary Kriesel said he supported Hutton’s request for additional deputies.

“It’s big enough now that it has to stand on its own merits,” he said of public interest in Lake Elmo Park Reserve, which also has campgrounds, trails, a fishing pier, a boat ramp and vast natural areas.

The swim pond and surrounding area, built in 1986 and separate from the nearby lake, were designed for use by 600 to 800 people at one time. Nowadays, the crowd can surge to 3,500 on hot summer days.

Large groups sometimes overwhelm picnic areas, leading to friction over tables, and park employees often find themselves having to direct traffic and monitor parking.

The $65,000 draft study, by SRF Consulting Group, Inc., proposes a substantial overhaul of the swim pond area. New building space would be constructed for restrooms, concessions and lifeguards. Larger picnic shelters would be built farther from the pond, sidewalks would be added in large grassy areas for users with disabilities and roads would be aligned to improve traffic flow. Also proposed is a plaza that would become a main entrance.

Kriesel said the county should consider adding other attractions, such as a wading pond or splash pad, outside the swim pond area. “I think we’ve got to look beyond that pond,” he said. “Without more amenities it’s just going to get more overloaded.”

The County Board hasn’t taken action on the proposals but discussed them in an informal workshop last week. Making all of the changes would cost an estimated $4.5 million, but the county is far from determining a final strategy.

Elholm said he’s pleased to see strong public interest in the park: “Clearly the public likes what they see there and wants to use it.”

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037

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