The Metropolitan Council’s long-term blueprint for regional parks moved closer to becoming official policy this week following sharp criticism from purely suburban park agencies.
The council’s Parks and Open Space Commission greenlighted the plan, recommending it be formally adopted in February. A recent Met Council report said “no substantive policy changes” were made in the draft plan after getting more than 450 comments — pro and con — from residents, community organizations and local government representatives. The report said changes included tweaking language and updating maps.
“They tinkered around the edges with it,” said Scott County Administrator Gary Shelton.
Shelton said the Met Council has been largely unresponsive to concerns raised by suburban regional park agencies in public comments and at a special meeting in November. Representatives of the Three Rivers Park District and of Anoka, Dakota and Washington counties declined to comment.
The park plan is part of Thrive MSP 2040, the Met Council’s long-term planning program, which also includes directives for housing, transportation and water resources. The metro area’s regional park system is a network of more than 50 large open recreational spaces that includes Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis, Bunker Hills Regional Park in Coon Rapids and Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan.
Three Rivers and the five purely suburban counties have said the new plan gives the Met Council too much control over how public park agencies — which own and operate the regional parks — spend their funds.
The Met Council believes the plan addresses goals to make regional park resources available to a more racially diverse and aging population. A key provision would require equity impact statements to determine funding for regional parks. The park plan, including the emphasis on equity, drew some support during the public comment period last fall. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board recommended that equitable use of parks be considered in all park master plans and funding requests.
But Carver County cautioned the council to thoroughly understand barriers to equitable park use before deploying solutions. “Capital projects are costly and have long life spans, and the region should be highly confident that capital projects will produce intended results,” county representatives said. The county also questioned how improvements in equitable park use would be measured.
Marty Walsh, parks director in Carver County, said uncertainty over specifics in the new equity rules is a reason public park agencies are uneasy over the park plan. The Met Council says that it, park agencies and other unspecified “partners and stakeholders” will develop the equity measurement tools later this year.
“Change is always a challenge,” said Rick Theisen, vice chair of the council’s parks commission. He said he understands why park agencies are worried about equity requirements affecting plans they made years ago for projects being done in the near future. But he believes their concerns will be addressed when the equity provisions are developed.