A controversial plan to clear and regrade a scenic Rum River bluff next to a proposed luxury housing development has been attacked by riverside residents but appears headed for approval by the Anoka City Council.

The planned clear-cutting is necessary to stabilize the undercut river bank, residents were told at a packed City Council meeting this month. The bluff would support a six-slip public dock and a paved bike trail at mid-bluff on the river's east bank, just upstream of Bunker Lake Boulevard.

At its meeting this coming Monday, the council is expected to approve the bluff makeover, a public dock and the Rum River Shores subdivision proposed by veteran builder Dean Hanson, of Landmark of Anoka. He plans to build 44 homes priced from $400,000 to $650,000, with a clubhouse, swimming pool and other amenities. He told the council meeting that boat and canoe access to the nearby Rum is "critical to our success."

In a twist, the $275,000 bluff redo, which includes removing seven roughly 150-year-old bur oaks, is proposed not by the developer or the city, but by the Anoka Conservation District. The city owns the property, but the Conservation District's OK is necessary because it controls a 100-foot easement along the steep, 30-foot-tall bluff, which is part of the adjacent 200-acre Anoka Nature Preserve.

The district's board reluctantly approved the plan this spring, district manager Chris Lord told the council. "Our board isn't thrilled with this, but it weighed the options," Lord said. "It is a tough situation with bad options to choose from."

Lord, who has worked 22 years for the district, said powerful river currents are eroding the bluff's bank, which juts steeply upward to the housing site. The bank bottom, or toe, has already lost hunks of earth and shows signs of losing more during high flows, he noted. Sooner or later the bluff would slide into the river, likely taking the bike trail and old bur oaks with it, he said.

The state Department of Natural Resources has review authority over projects affecting state Wild and Scenic Rivers like the Rum, but not veto power.

DNR hydrologist Kate Drewry said concerns she had about an early developer's plan that didn't stabilize the bluff were allayed after she saw the extensive restoration proposal suggested by Lord.

"While we always hate to see mature oak trees go in a Wild and Scenic River area, we felt in this case it made sense to tackle it now when there is still good accessibility to get down to the toe and do the necessary work," Drewry said in an interview. She said it would cost much more to do the work after the homes are built.

Tim Schie, co-chairman of the Friends of the Anoka Nature Preserve, said tree roots have supported the bluff for 150 years. He asked the council at a work session last week to leave the wooded bluff wild like it's always been. He said regrading and clear-cutting plans are overkill: "I don't want to amputate my leg now because of the risk of a sprain in my ankle 150 years from now."

Mayor Phil Rice responded that the bluff's erosion problem is more akin to having cancer or diabetes than an ankle sprain. "Now is the best time to fix that property even though it is going to hurt a little bit," Rice said.

A confessed "tree hugger," Lord found himself in an awkward position, opposing the nature-loving Friends of the Preserve. He argued that long-term bluff stability is worth major, unscenic restoration now.

"I don't like cutting down 150-year-old trees. But we have to think long term — 30 to 50 years" when the bluff will eventually slip into the river, trees and all, Lord said. Now is the least expensive time to fix it, when developer Hanson has offered to provide $175,000 worth of equipment and operators to clear and grade the bluff, Lord said. The city has agreed to pay the other $100,000 from about $440,000 it will receive from Hanson for the 44 lots.

Lord's plan is to shorten and regrade more than half of the 1,000-foot-long bluff, clearing most of its oak, basswood, ash and invasive buckthorn. About 400 trees and shrubs would be replanted and about 2,000 thickly rooted willow, as well as dogwood and grasses, would be combined with minimal rock armor to stabilize the bank's eroding toe.

Lord said engineers tell him a 3-to-1 slope grade is needed to stabilize the bluff. To achieve that within the 100-foot-wide easement, the top 10 feet of the tall section of the bluff would need to be removed. The minor toe restoration suggested by the Friends group won't solve the erosion problem, he said.

Although the city initially discussed leasing the six dock slips to Hanson's incoming homeowners, the City Council nixed that idea. Because the city will own and install the $40,000 boat dock, the rental slips should be available to all city residents, council members agreed. So a lottery to win the six dock slips will be held for interested boat owners. Because the nearest public parking is about half a mile away, the city is considering installing parking spots closer to the dock location, said City Manager Tim Cruikshank.

Developer Hanson told the council session last week he didn't like the bluff controversy, but agreed after seeing severe bluff erosion that it must be improved to be safe.