After months of reworking the route for the North Urban Regional Trail to please Dodge Nature Center, a last-minute objection to the compromise location came from the West St. Paul School District, causing Dakota County Board members considerable frustration.
Already pressed to finish the trail by next spring to secure promised federal funds, the County Board had intended last week to finalize the route for the last piece of the trail through West St. Paul and move on to hiring someone to build it.
Instead, board members were surprised to learn that the school district had thrown a wrench in the works by objecting to routing the trail along Warrior Drive on one side of Henry Sibley High School’s property.
The bike and walking trail will thread through West St. Paul, South St. Paul and Mendota Heights, running between the Big River Regional Trail along the Minnesota River on the west and the Mississippi River Regional Trail along the Mississippi River on the east.
Seven of the eight miles of the trail are already built, and county officials are trying to complete the last mile through West St. Paul.
The school board thought it would not get enough benefit from the trail to justify giving up land to accommodate the 10-foot wide ribbon of asphalt, county project manager Chris Hartzell told the county board after attending the school board meeting.
School district spokeswoman Carrie Hilger said the school board did not take a formal position against the trail route but questioned why the trail is needed when another county trail — which the county considers little more than a sidewalk — exists along Delaware Avenue parallel to Warrior Drive. The school board did not see Warrior Drive as being wooded or scenic and did not understand how it would fit into the county’s goals to offer a greenway experience on the trail, Hilger said.
The matter came up near 10 p.m. on the agenda, and the board wanted more information and is willing to discuss it further, she said. “We need to have a meeting where this is laid out and with more time, too.’’
The school board’s resistance to the trail surprised the county, just as Dodge Nature Center did last October when it objected to having the trail wind through its nature area.
After reviewing alternatives and holding a lengthy list of public meetings on options, the county had chosen another route skirting the edge of the nature center instead of cutting through it. That new route was to extend along the east side of Warrior Drive, protected by a berm separating it from the street.
The school district staff had given every indication that the compromise route would work for the school district. But the night before the county board meeting, the school board balked, Hartzell said.
County Board Member Tom Egan of Eagan was incredulous. “I am flabbergasted and dismayed that the school board went against the recommendation of staff the day before a decision had to be made.” It was, he said, as if the school board had vetoed “all the process that had gone on to this point.”
Initially, county board members Nancy Schouweiler of Inver Grove Heights and Liz Workman of Burnsville made a motion to choose the Warrior Drive route over the objections of the school board, in part because students could use the trail both for walking to and from school and as a safe running route for the school’s track and field teams.
“Part of me questions the wisdom of a school board who can’t see the benefit of keeping the track team off the street,” Workman said. “I see the benefit — the kids aren’t running out in traffic.”
But ultimately, both joined the rest of the board members in approving the portion of the trail route skirting Dodge Nature Center while agreeing to make one more attempt to communicate with the school board about locating the trail along Warrior Drive before the next County Board meeting May 7.
Board Chairwoman Kathleen Gaylord, who lives in South St. Paul, said she was stunned at the position of the school board after she had worked for months on the compromise with Dodge Nature Center. But, she said, she would be concerned about butting heads with the school district and even facing the prospect of using eminent domain to get the route in place.
“It’s amazing how many difficulties we are having making this final link,” Gaylord said.
Finding a location for the final mile has been a challenge. After 15 years of planning for it to go through Dodge Nature Center, a 320-acre natural area in West St. Paul and Mendota Heights, the county was stunned last October when the nature center’s new executive director, Jason Sanders, and board members said they did not want the trail cutting through the nature center.
Sanders last week thanked the county for choosing the option that cuts across a corner of the center along Marie Avenue. “We helped create an alternative that is a good one for trail users,” he said.