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The sumac leaves are crimson, and the oak, ash and maple trees flicker with yellow and orange along a section of Hwy. 101 in Chanhassen.
Like many country roads on the outer fringes of the metro area, the corridor is picturesque and narrow, with a curvy, rolling path that follows the natural ups and downs of the land. And while such roads are charming for some, they can be a problem for others as traffic and development push outward into rural areas.
Case in point: Chanhassen officials want to transform about three-fourths of a mile of the hilly, two-lane road into a four-lane divided highway with 10-foot wide bike and pedestrian trails on each side, in part, to prepare for daily traffic that's expected to nearly triple by 2034. Neighbors are upset, and say that more than 1,000 trees would be clear-cut as part of the realignment and redesign.
"One of the things that really brought many of us to live out here is that Chanhassen has really worked to preserve the rural character of this area," said Dave Wondra, whose property borders the road. "That's why this is so shocking."
But city officials say the road's dips and curves and skinny shoulders are a safety hazard, and the route needs to be widened and straightened. "We need to make these improvements sooner than later," said Paul Oehme, Chanhassen's project director.
The segment is just south of recently built Hwy. 212, and stretches between Lyman Boulevard and Pioneer Trail.
Reconstruction will cost about $9 million, and Chanhassen officials are expected to make a final decision on the project in December.
Two lanes to become five
Standing in his back yard last week, surrounded by chest-high Big Bluestem grass and other prairie plants, Doug Duchon pointed at hundreds of pines, spruce and other trees he planted to screen his property from the highway. They shield his home from the sights and sounds of traffic, he said, but all will be removed if the road is widened.
So will part of the 5-acre prairie that he, Wondra and another neighbor planted 18 years ago on their adjacent back yards and have nurtured carefully by mowing and burning.
Duchon acknowledged that the road needs to be improved so that its sightlines are better, but he said the city's plan is overkill. "It goes from two lanes to five lanes, which is horrendous," he said.
Wondra said there must be some way to soften the curves, change the grade and install a few turn lanes without removing the mature oak stands and other trees that line much of the road.
"I believe everyone has good intentions here," he said. "Clearly a lot of funding is available. My question is whether it's really the best choice to spend all that money and remove this part of Chanhassen as a result."
Mayor Tom Furlong said the goal is to make the road safer and to do so in a way that meets future needs as the southern part of Chanhassen develops and traffic increases between Carver and Scott Counties.
"Simply replacing the two-lane road now with another two-lane road, knowing that it won't handle future capacity, would not be a good use of taxpayer dollars," he said Friday.
Following the rules
Project director Oehme did not deny that hundreds of trees will be removed if the project moves forward. "When you try to straighten out a road, this is a pretty wooded area," he said.
The city is considering citizen concerns, he said, but is not likely to scale back the project significantly. "We can look at tweaking the alignment a little to save trees, and where [storm water] ponds can go, and try to mitigate the impacts as best we can, but overall we're kind of stuck with what the state and county requirements are," he said. Federal funds would pay for about $5.4 million of its cost, along with $1 million from the state and $2.5 million from the city. To receive the funds, roads must be built to certain standards, Oehme said, and must accommodate traffic that's projected to swell from 6,500 average daily trips in 2011 to 17,000 average daily trips in the corridor by 2034.
Oehme said the redesign also must be compatible with another section of road immediately to the south that will also be realigned and reconstructed in the next few years to provide speedier and safer connections to Shakopee.
He said the plan for the Lyman to Pioneer Trail segment is to finish an environmental assessment and other planning by the end of this year, acquire right of way and complete final design in 2012, and begin construction in 2013.
Duchon said he understands the need to prepare for the future, but he's not convinced that traffic projections are accurate or that additional links to the south will be affordable. He said he hates to see a beautiful country road bulldozed into a flat, open, divided highway. That will destroy habitat for the foxes, turkeys, deer and other wildlife he commonly sees in the area, Duchon said, and it clashes with Chanhassen's reputation for preserving its natural assets.
He wants the city to re-visit the proposal, offer more opportunities for citizens to comment and downsize the project.
Even if he fails, Duchon said, "I want to be able to at least go to bed at night and say: 'You know what, I did everything I could.'"
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388