Dakota County is asking for a second round of public input on its plan for the future of Lebanon Hills Regional Park and hoping this one is smoother than the first.
When the county released the park plan in 2014, it was met with passionate opposition. Nearly 350 people attended open houses on the topic. They were worried about bridge repairs, buckthorn removal and overdevelopment — but the primary source of contention was the proposal for a paved trail through the middle of the park, which some said would ruin visitors’ wilderness experience.
Commissioners were concerned and decided to slow down the process. They formed a panel to review the plan that would guide how the regional park, called the metro area’s Boundary Waters, develops.
A year later, the panel’s comments are in, the plan is updated, and officials are awaiting another round of community feedback before a final approval. On Jan. 26, the county posted a new version of the master plan on its website for a 30-day comment period.
“I’m proud of the panel and I’m proud of the process,” Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler said at a recent meeting where the county board received the panel’s recommendations. “I appreciate the fact that we didn’t come back with a total no build.”
The panel was made up of members nominated by commissioners, who said they wanted to represent a broad swath of the community — seniors, families with children, equestrians and more. Not everyone will agree with the group’s advice, but it will help policymakers make better decisions, Schouweiler said.
What the committee came up with is not any one person’s ideal answer, but they can live with the recommendations, said Aimee Gourlay, the panel’s facilitator.
Holly Jenkins, one of the members, cannot.
She wrote in a “minority report” that “the panel was created and proceedings controlled in a manner that would enable Dakota County to change the direction Lebanon Hills was heading.” She asked officials to prioritize restoration, programming, marketing and staffing over increased development.
The master plan still includes the addition of a paved trail, though the panel was divided on if, and where, it should be built.
Many people opposed the original route through the heart of the park. There was stronger support for a northern path that would connect to a campground in the western part of the park, said Lillian Leatham, a consultant who worked with the panel.
The panel did not change the proposed 10-foot width of the trail, a size that irked many community members.
Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord was also concerned about the width and said it feels like “more of a road than a trail.”
But panel member Wayne Sames said a 10-foot trail will accommodate cyclists and people in wheelchairs.
“You have to have good enough distance for safe passing,” Sames said. “Anything narrower than this would, I think, bring some real questions of safety.”
There will still be people on both sides, those who want more development and those who oppose it, who are unhappy with the final plan, Commissioner Chris Gerlach said. But the county has spent a lot of money — $207,500, according to staff — to slow down the process and address the concerns of people in the middle, he said.
Commissioners are now waiting for the community’s reply to the changes.
“I would expect that we will still receive a good amount of input regarding the plan and the changes that are proposed,” Physical Development Director Steven Mielke said. “We certainly welcome and want this to be a broad-based input from the public, and we would want people to send their comments — for or against.”
Mielke said county staff anticipate the board will vote to move forward with the plan when they revisit it in March.