It’s prime summer weather, but staff members from the city of Bloomington and the Three Rivers Park District huddled recently to work out a dispute about winter skiing, and noise from a new $5.75 million cross-country ski trail loop that’s slated to be up and running by December.

The noise would come from 15 portable snow-making machines that would be moved up and down the new trail in Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington. About one kilometer of the 5-kilometer trail skirts the east side of the park, coming as close as 300 feet from the nearest house.

“The noise level will violate both the daytime and the nighttime noise code for about 200 homes next to the park,” said Larry Lee, Bloomington’s director of community development. Because of the expected noise, Bloomington needed to pass an exception to its noise ordinance so that the snow machines could operate.

The noise estimates were based on computer modeling from Three Rivers Park District, which owns the park and proposed the trail. Park District officials said it would benefit the region because the only other cross-country ski trails that make snow are at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis and Elm Creek Park Reserve in the north metro, which is often overcrowded with school teams, individuals and special events.

Park District associate superintendent Jonathan Vlaming said Hyland Lake Park Reserve is the obvious choice because of its location in the south metro, and because Hyland already offers downhill skiing and snowboarding and plans to build a new chalet and expand parking.

Making snow with machines is necessary because the climate has warmed over the past few decades and the number of skiable days has steadily decreased, Vlaming said, even while demand has increased.

“There’s a huge demand for morning cross-country skiing before people go to work, and of course after work as well,” he said.

Conditions attached

Vlaming said the snow machines will be used mainly at the beginning of the season in November and early December, and the sound when heard from inside nearby houses with closed windows will be similar to a “dull hum.”

“The key on this is it’s not all winter long,” Vlaming said. When temperatures and humidity are low and wind is minimal, “we start making snow like crazy and start pushing it out along the trail to groom it,” he said. After making a 2- to 3-foot base, he said, there’s usually no need to make much more snow unless there’s an unusual event like a rainstorm in January that ices up the trail and makes it unsafe.

Bloomington City Council members approved the noise exception unanimously last week, but only after adding several conditions that city and Three Rivers staff worked out. Under the arrangement, crews may operate the snow machines along the portion of trail near the homes for no more than 22 calendar days each winter, and no more than 100 total hours between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Snow machines may also not operate on the part of the trail near homes on Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 24 and 25, and Jan. 1.

Balancing noise and fun

The loop will mostly use existing walking trails and service roads within the park to minimize the impact on natural resources, Three Rivers officials said. The snow machines will be supplied by a piping system to be installed along the trail that draws water from Hyland Lake.

City Council Member Steve Peterson said he takes noise concerns seriously, but officials needed to balance that inconvenience with the benefits of having a major new ski attraction. The limits on hours of snowmaking will lessen the impact for nearby residents, he said, “but we can’t have a goal of zero.”

Barbara Penn, who lives just south of the affected neighborhood, told City Council members that she’s opposed to the snowmaking because it will bring more noise, traffic and lighting to the area. “Not all of us recreate south in Florida in the winter,” she said. “I do enjoy cross-country skiing, but I just don’t think our park is the place for this project.”

After the council approved the noise exception on a 7-0 vote, Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead said that trying to gauge noise levels and decibels is difficult, and people perceive noise differently. “Yes, there is going to be noise,” he said. “This council could reconsider if it rises to the level of a major problem.”

Three Rivers commissioners approved the ski trail and conditions on June 27, contingent on Bloomington’s acceptance. In addition to guaranteed snow, the new trail loop will offer lighted trails for night skiing until 10 p.m.

Betsy Longley, who lives within the predicted noise area, told City Council members that she’s comfortable with the changes and happy to see the improvements. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for Bloomington to be known not just as the Mall of America city,” she said, “but also a city that provides the best cross-country skiing opportunities in the region.”