A savage fight over the Savage Fen

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2007 - 11:22 PM

A proposed subdivision pits the developer and the city, which gave its approval this week, against neighbors worried about the environment.

A group of neighbors is accusing the city of Savage of endangering a sensitive natural area by approving a housing development that is being proposed by the brother of one of its council members.

But city officials say those opponents just don't want to lose a pretty piece of wooded acreage outside their back doors.

At issue is the Savage Fen, a rare wetland that is the largest of its kind in Minnesota. It extends along much of the northern border of the city, not far from the Minnesota River.

The City Council gave the housing project final approval on Monday night, knowing the issue is headed to court.

Mayor Tom Brennan said that nothing underhanded is taking place. "We're not trying to be secretive or make this into some unseemly, unsightly situation," he told unhappy neighbors during Monday's meeting. "We're doing the best job we can."

Karl Bohn, a major landowner in the Savage area, is proposing a housing development called Dan Patch Trail, about a quarter-mile from the fen. The first phase, 51 units, has full approval; the other 70 have preliminary approval. An additional 100 or so units could follow later.

Foes claim the project is sliced into phases to avoid triggering an environmental review that would be mandatory if the project were bigger.

Organized as the Woods & Wetlands Alliance, they have attacked the project on a number of grounds, including fear of runoff damaging the fen.

"This is a pretty significant piece of property environmentally," said Alexandra Klass, a University of Minnesota law professor of environmental law who is representing the neighbors. "For the city to say there are no environmental issues without looking is exactly what the law is intended to prevent."

An attempt in the late 1980s to develop the same area was not well-received by government agencies responsible for environmental oversight, she added.

The city has long made a point of wanting to protect the fen, but Klass said that money often talks in these situations. "I'm sure the city gets significant benefits out of this," she said, "from fees it will charge and a bigger tax base. They have financial interests just as developers do."

The city responds

The city's planning manager, Bryan Tucker, said the project has approval from the environmental agencies that had reservations decades ago. Even if all 200-plus units were being proposed now, he said, it wouldn't trigger a full-scale environmental impact review because the floor for that is 250 units.

It's true, he said, that the project brings community benefits. It will bring children into a school district that has space for them, bring vitality to the downtown area by creating walkable streets, and add substantially to the tax base.

In addition, he said, the developer has agreed to allow a long-sought roadway access through the development to relieve what is now an overly busy street nearby.

Potential conflict?

Neighbors note that Council Member Janet Williams, a candidate for mayor, is Bohn's sister. Brennan is not running for reelection this November.

Williams routinely discloses that tie as the issue comes up, stressing that she has no financial interest in the project and sees no reason not to vote on it. Brennan said it's no more troubling than another council member being the brother of the city's fire chief.

Neighbors filed suit last month to stop the project. City officials said they couldn't stall the project just because of the lawsuit. The developer has a right to a city decision on his proposal within a set period of time.

"The neighbors have long had the benefit of a wooded area they've used and enjoyed, though it isn't theirs," Tucker said. "I'm sure that, putting myself in their shoes, any development on this property is not desirable to them."

David Peterson • 612-673-4440

  • ABOUT THE SAVAGE FEN

    Size: 440 acres

    Location: Northern half of Savage, south of the highway that runs along the Minnesota River

    Significance: Contains one of the state's largest known calcareous fens (62 of the 440 acres). Calcium and other elements create a thick base of peat that supports unique plant life. Scientists have found more than 200 plant species in the fen, including orchids and gentians.

    For more about the state Scientific and Natural Area within the fen complex, go to www.startribune.com/a3524.

    Source: City of Savage

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