Occasionally, a happy problem confronts county government, and here’s one: Planners can’t keep up with development proposals for parks and trails.
Interest in making the most of Washington County’s scenic beauty has ballooned in recent years as cities seek more links to nature. Major projects such as Browns Creek State Trail — construction begins in July — have made residents aware that park planners are coming very close to mapping a seamless countywide network of parks and trails.
“Everybody’s got ideas about what they want to see in our parks,” said Don Theisen, the county’s public works director. “Does it make sense to create more projects when we already have more projects than we can handle?”
At issue is how the county keeps up with all the new ideas for parks and trails. Two county parks and five regional trails don’t have master plans, a vital step required to fund the work.
Those existing smaller county parks — Square Lake and Pine Point — are both north of Stillwater. The trails, proposed or partly completed, are Central Greenway, Grey Cloud Island, Afton Bluffs, Prairie View and Glacial Hills.
The county’s only parks planner, Peter Mott, said master plans help develop relationships among various government agencies that share responsibility for parks and trails. Plans also are built with the help of extensive public comment to make sure all opinions are represented.
“It’s an exciting problem to have,” he said of so many proposals waiting for review. “It makes me sense that there’s a growing importance of these things in the communities.”
Master plans also determine boundaries of parks and trails, protect natural resources, and propose the type and location of structures.
The county has completed several master plans in recent years — a reflection of the demand for more parks and trails. The Hardwood Creek Regional Trail master plan was completed last year. In 2012 came Point Douglas Regional Trail; in 2011, Cottage Grove Regional Park; in 2010, Big Marine Park Reserve, and in 2005, Lake Elmo Park Reserve and St. Croix Valley Regional Trail.
But completing even a single project can take years, sometimes decades, and progress can be delayed without a master plan.
A case in point is Central Greenway, which is complete except for a 3-mile gap. That regional trail would connect Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park with Lake Elmo Park Reserve through Woodbury. Money isn’t available to finish the trail without a master plan. City officials in Woodbury and Cottage Grove and managers of the South Washington Watershed District have said they want the trail finished.
Meanwhile, the city of Lake Elmo wants the regional trail completed before determining routes that city trails should follow.
“I think people are realizing these trails are more than how you get to the ma-and-pa grocery store at the end of the road but also, how do you plan your day of leisure?” Mott said. “The county really has had some great successes for trails. What we’re seeing is really a result of more interest in that development. This is probably going to persist for a while until we have these critical trails developed.”
The County Board, meanwhile, will wrestle with the question of how much money in the 2015 budget should be invested in park planning.
“We still have significant limitations in our funding,” Commissioner Fran Miron said. He said he favored public-private partnerships as a means of getting the work done.
Mott said county parks and trails that already have master plans have a backlog of recommended improvements to keep them useful and attractive. Just last month, the Legislature approved $1.6 million for construction of a vital connecting link between the Hastings Bridge and a county trail that’s been in planning for a long time — the Point Douglas Regional Trail.
“One of the dangers of doing more master planning is you’re just adding to the list of things you told the communities you were going to do but haven’t done,” he said.