The controversial master plan that will shape the future of Lebanon Hills Regional Park — and add a paved trail through it — overcame another hurdle Monday, when the Metropolitan Council’s Community Development Committee gave it the go-ahead.
But first, committee members heard from park lovers who argued the plan would tamper with the site in Apple Valley and Eagan, which they say provides the metro with a unique wilderness escape 30 minutes from downtown Minneapolis.
The 2,000-acre park is the most popular one in Dakota County.
Over the past several years, hundreds of park users have written in or showed up at government meetings to argue against parts of the master plan update, namely the addition of a 6-mile paved trail.
For those opponents, the Met Council’s discussion of the plan this month, which culminates with a final vote Aug. 26, is their last stand against the full plan — though they said they will continue to fight the trail through the design and funding process.
Met Council officials were bombarded with comments on the topic. But their role is to ensure that the Lebanon Hills updates fit with the Council’s Regional Parks Policy Plan, said Jan Youngquist, the Council’s manager of regional parks and natural resources. The agency leaves development decisions to the county boards.
The Dakota County Board approved the plan in March, after they received nearly 700 comments on it — the vast majority opposed.
Lebanon Hills had 616,200 visitors last year, according to Met Council estimates.
The majority of county commissioners and plan supporters contend that the park needs to be updated to serve a more diverse population, including people with disabilities and the elderly who are unable to navigate the unpaved trails.
However, county officials tweaked the plan in response to critics, including moving the location of the paved trail closer to the edge of the park. County staff also plan to discourage fast-traveling bike commuters from using the trail and would instead promote it as a scenic way to traverse Lebanon Hills.
The updated master plan, which would cost more than $27.5 million to implement, also includes more picnic sites, boating opportunities and beach space. It would expand the visitor center and the Camp Sacajawea retreat center. It includes numerous restoration projects, including managing invasive species on 945 acres of parkland.
The additions, including the paved trail, would increase the percentage of total developed space in the park by 3 percent, Youngquist said, to about 14 percent.
Patricia Cummens, who spoke against the plan, said even a seemingly small addition of pavement can have a large impact on animals’ habitat and park-goers.
“You’re disrupted,” Cummens said. “You’re not in that escape zone, that mini-Boundary Waters zone.”
Met Council member Steve Elkins said the trail will open the park to more people.
“Having paved trails in the park reserve in my backyard has not done anything to degrade the quality of anyone’s experience,” Elkins said.
The trail would allow campers to avoid biking all the way around the edge of the park to get to the beach, Council Member Wendy Wulff said, adding that much of the trail would cut through old farmland.
“That’s not going to ruin the park,” Wulff said.
All committee members voted Monday to approve the plan except Gail Dorfman, who abstained.