Proposed I-35/Hwy 19 Development Area 4th Monday LWV Discussion

“This is a problem brought about by a change in tax law, which puts pressure on cities and counties to encourage more commercial development.” remarked Dixon Bond, Northfield City council member. Dixon’s comment, referring to proposed 1,080-acre commercial development, gives a larger picture to an issue that has been troubling many Forest Township residents. Residents who feel their concerns have been completely disregarded by the actions of the County Board. I have had some conversations with my friend Chuck Von Ruden who can’t believe what is proposed for the property he has owned for a number of years. Chuck has done a great job working with his neighbors and alerting them to the coming trouble. You may have driven along Bagley Ave. and seen the signs of protest. “Urban development for urban areas,” reads one hand painted sign. Several at the discussion Monday agreed with that sentiment. “Development should really follow along established cities where infrastructure is already built up,” said Loren Abraham, architect.

The evening began with a welcome form Kathleen Doran Norton, League President, who explained that the League intended to host open discussions on issues of local concern once a month. The hope was to allow members and citizens a forum to express their views and ask questions that is not often possible in a forum. This evening however, at the request of Forest Township resident Charles Skinner the discussion would include a presentation by Loren Abraham, a consultant he hired to look at the environmental impact of the proposed development. The planned development area stretches along the I-35 corridor in Forest Township from highway 19 and Union Lake to County Rd. 1, divided into three separate parcels mixing office space, retail stores, technical buildings and showrooms, comprising 3.2 million square feet.

Some historical background was provided by County Commissioner, Jessica Peterson and local attorney, Carol Overland who has been working with citizens in the area for sometime. They explained that this process began before the new County Board had taken office.

A plan for rezoning and commercial development passed in December of 2004 and does not go into effect until the end of this year. Three committees have been formed, though not all of them have met, to study various aspects of the development and create the plan to implement it. The County board hired a consultant group, RLK-Kussisto, to study the feasibility of the project and make a preliminary design. Copies of the design footprint were passed around. It was explained that currently no business is seeking to relocate to the area, it is assumed that developing the land and the footprint will entice the desired commercial development, which it is likely no one wants in their backyard. It is hoped that the proposed plan will be given environmental review by several governmental agencies. This plan, as stated, will transform porous terrain into a land surface that is 80% impervious with buildings, pavement, etc.

Commissioners seem bound and determined to move forward regardless of what citizens who live in the area think. Several of them at the meeting spoke of their efforts to speak at various meetings only to be silenced or cut off. As Charlie Skinner introduced Loren Abraham, he explained that Loren had only been allowed to present 9 minutes of his 20 – minute presentation.

Abraham, who specializes in environmental design and ecologically sustainable development, displayed several maps showing the history, vegetation, wildlife, geographic, and hydrological data of the area. He described the proposed development area as a mix of agricultural and wetlands. Several huge questions arose regarding the viability of this project the first being the soil make up which is ideal for agriculture but wrong for bearing the kind of weight and traffic that commercial sites described in the zoning plan would generate. In order to develop the stretch of land Abraham pointed out that the soil, mostly clay and soft sandy loam, would have to be removed and replaced with less porous fill, a costly endeavor. Another obstacle would be the impact on drainage, and surrounding wildlife habitat of a plan that would replace wetlands with nonporous pavement and roof surface. Two creeks, Heath and Wolf provide wildlife passageways from surrounding lakes and wetlands. The stretch of the Cannon between these two creeks is on the ’04 TDML watch list of impaired waters for Mercury and Fecal Coliform bacteria pollutants, so why don’t we have the data on these two creeks.

Although no one spoke in favor of the project a recent article in the Startribune quotes Arlyn Grussing, the county planning director, “the land was rezoned as a long-term strategy to help the county boost its ailing commercial tax base. Commercial property accounted for 26 percent of the county’s tax base in 1993, he said, but it dropped to 16 percent by 2002 . . . the county is doing an environmental study of the area, which remains zoned for agricultural use until Dec. 31. Public comments on the study could be taken from July 18 through Aug. 17.”

That’s thirty days for public input on a project that would be by far the largest commercial/industrial area of the county and transform the nature of the land forever. The costs are likely to be astronomical and it is not yet known who will be asked to pay for it. The next step will be for the committee to draft an Alternative Urban Areawide Review (AUAR), which should look at many of the concerns Abraham delineated in his presentation. After listening to the discussion and background on the proposed development in Forest Township I wonder how the development has gotten this far. The biggest concerns I have are:
1. It seems a dubious plan to sacrifice prime agricultural land for commercial development.
2. The costs of transforming the land to a suitable form for development and providing infrastructure, water, sewage, utilities, etc.
3. The environmental impact on surrounding wetlands and wildlife.
4. The lack of citizen input due to the behavior of the board.
5. The departure from the plan of developing on land contiguous with urbanized land where infrastructure exists.

It is imperative that citizens stay informed and involved in this kind of development. Rice County needs a better plan that allows for commercial development but also preserves the agricultural and rural character of the area.

In addition to vibrant and growing cities Rice County has numerous lakes, wildlife and recreational areas as well as prime farm land, which deserves preservation as well. Our water resource, which not only provides quality of life for people, but also for many species of plant and wildlife can be destroyed and lost forever. It takes vigilance to protect it. You can help by staying informed and speaking out. The League of Women Voters should be commended for their interest and promotion of open discussion.

Just this morning several blogs have appeared with comments on the meeting and two articles in the Northfield News:

Responding to I-35 master plan
Staff Writer

LWV hosts Fourth Monday forum on issue
Staff Writer

You can also learn more about various citizen resources by visiting the following sites:

Rice County Soil and Water

Rice County Planning

Environmental Planning

Rice County Board

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Lower Mississippi

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