Officials with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District are warning Orono that the city will have to pay next time it fails to follow a joint plan to preserve Big Island on Lake Minnetonka.
In a letter to Orono Mayor Dennis Walsh and the City Council, the watershed district criticized the city for trimming 200 tree limbs last summer on the island's protected natural area. The city needs to notify the district before it attempts improvements, said District President Sherry Davis White.
The trees are part of a careful and pricey effort by Orono, the watershed district and the Three Rivers Park District to stabilize the island's shoreline using riprap and plantings. Watershed district officials, who have spent nearly $900,000 on the project, are concerned that trimming may weaken the trees and ultimately erode the shoreline.
While district officials said they hoped the district and city would work together to prevent similar damage in the future, they warned that the district would pursue all enforcement remedies if the city didn't follow its management plan.
But the management plan doesn't say anything specific about maintaining trees around the island's trails and other areas, said Victoria Seals, the City Council's liaison to the city's recently formed island oversight committee.
Orono didn't do anything wrong because the trimmed trees were overgrown, she said. "City staff felt they were right in what they did, and the [watershed] district thought this wasn't OK," she said. "There is a perception difference. But moving forward, I think we are on the same page."
The tiff is the latest surrounding the island and the city, which bought a campground there in 2006 to turn into a park.
Last summer, the City Council voted to remove docks from the island as an unwanted expense, but then reversed itself after hearing from veterans and others who wanted to keep the island accessible.
Mayor Walsh formed the island oversight committee last year, but it doesn't include a former Orono mayor who has been the island's de facto caretaker for several years.
"Anybody can write a letter with their opinions," said Walsh, who was elected mayor in 2016. "There are two sides to every story. The devil is in the details."
Part of Orono's identity
In 2006, Orono bought the 56-acre Big Island Veterans Camp from several vets' groups for $5.7 million. It was home to a short-lived amusement park before becoming a campground in the 1920s. Nearly $3 million of the price tag came from state and watershed district funds; in exchange for its contribution, the district got a conservation easement to ensure the land will never be sold and developed.
This summer, Orono city workers and volunteers cut the limbs from 200 healthy and mature sugar maple, basswood, cottonwood, ironwood and hackberry trees. White said that the trees were within a protected area and that the trimming violated the terms of the easement. Workers later used a chipper to splinter the tree limbs for use on the trails.
White said her staff will evaluate shoreline vegetation in the spring, and has committed to replanting once the tree damage is assessed.
Last year, the City Council tried to remove docks at Big Island that had been installed by former Orono Mayor Gabriel Jabbour. Without the docks, Jabbour said, it would be extremely difficult to land on the island for visitors, including the dozens of vets who go there each year. After a public outcry, the council reversed course and kept the docks.
Until the new island committee was formed by Walsh a year ago, Jabbour was Big Island Park's unpaid volunteer custodian. He helped lead the city's efforts to buy the camp and spent hours getting it ready for the sale.
Jabbour wasn't invited to join the committee, which Seals said was needed to oversee the island because "it's just too much work to put on one gentleman's shoulders."
"Everyone knows Gabe," said White. "He's an advocate for preserving the park and its use for vets. He kept the park in the best shape."
Jabbour, who emigrated from Syria, has lived in Orono since 1972 and is one of Minnetonka's major lakeshore owners. When the island was for sale, he thought about buying himself but decided it should be for the public's pleasure. He lobbied the Legislature for preservation funds and helped shape the original management plan.
"I look at this park and I think it's like northern Minnesota," he said. "Orono without this park would be like New York City without Central Park. It's part of its identity."
Dean Ascheman, a Vietnam War veteran who is disabled and helps oversee the money that vets' groups made off the camp sale, said it was critical that the island remain in its natural state and be accessible to veterans and the community.
Ascheman said that turnover on the council and the mayor's office may have led to a loss of institutional memory and island management. For nearly the last 10 years, Big Island Park has operated with no issues, he said.
"Maybe there was some misunderstandings about the management agreements, or maybe not everything was written in the agreement plans," he said.
Since the dock incident, public participation in planning and caring for the island's future has grown, Seals said. The oversight committee includes elected officials, park commission members and residents. She said that city and watershed district officials will meet soon to discuss the future of the island.
"Big Island has such amazing history and the efforts to preserve it have been fantastic," said Seals. "I'm super excited moving forward."