Friends of the Parks and Trails, St. Paul and Ramsey County

Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County, Minnesota

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Is This The Way The Mississippi River Critical Area Rules Are To Be Enforced?

The Friends were contacted by a property owner in Mendota Heights. His neighbor illegally clear cut the bluff on the Mississippi River, above Lilydale Park and not far from the recent landslide that tragically killed two schoolchildren. It is also within the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a National Park right here in the midst of the metropolitan area. The following is the email we sent to DNR staff in charge of regulating the area:

Dear Jenny and Dan,

I understand that you have been extremely busy with the revision process for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA) regulations and may have overlooked the email that I sent to Jennie Skancke and that she, in turn, referred to you. Given the timeliness of this matter, I am bringing this to your attention again.

As you will note in the thread below, on October 9, I sought comments from the DNR in this case.

It is set to come before the Mendota Heights City Council on October 21 at 7:00 pm. To view relevant documents, go to the Mendota Heights city website and view the agenda packet. (I apologize, but due to specific formats, I was unable to attach it.) The agenda is page 1. Relevant documents are pages 73-103.

It appears as if the City Planner, Nolan Wall will be submitting a memo (dated October 21) in which he states, “The DNR was provided the most recent information included in the Council packet for review. They indicated they have no further comments and felt that the City is handling the situation appropriately.”

Resolution 2014-69, as drafted, approves the after-the-fact conditional use permit to clear cut vegetation at 645 Sibley Memorial Highway within the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA).

As the agency responsible for the MRCCA, please answer the following:

1. Does the activity comply with Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area regulations? This case involves, according to the background provided in Mr. Wall’s memo “…significant clear cutting activity within the bluff area, which was not included in the landscape plan as part of the previously-approved application…” A letter dated July 10, 2014 from the landscape company that did the clear cutting states, “The cutting could not wait until September 15, 2014 due to the need to drive a truck to the back yard to allow for safety line tie-offs for the crews working on the hillside, and the new landscaping would not allow for this."

2. If the City Council adopts the resolution, what deters other property owners from following the example of the homeowners at 645 Sibley Memorial Highway? The City is authorized to issue a citation for violations of the code provisions, which would be a maximum of up to $1,000 fine in this case. No citation has been issued at this time. In the minutes from the public hearing, August 26, "Ms. Phyllis Dosch, 1028 Brompton Place, expressed her concerns about the bluff. She also indicated that the cutting done in 2003 was illegal and that the property owner at the time was either penalized or threatened with penalty. She wondered why this is even being discussed as it should never had been done in the first place; and what is to prevent someone else from doing it as well.”

3. Please explain why DNR staff is not recommending further action when, due to unsafe conditions, the slope where crews were "tied-off to work on the hillside", could not be inspected. How will that slope be evaluated, and until that is done, how can the conclusion be drawn that there is no erosion and the slope has not been impacted? Paul Haugo, President, Haugo Geotechnical Services states in his letter dated September 12, 2014, “The scope of our services was generally limited to conducting one site visit for observations (soil borings on the bluff/hillside were not feasible due to the pitch of the slope)…We observed the clear cut area from the top of the slope, from multiple vantage points near the edge of the bluff, while remain(sic) on the Burke residential property. The hillside was deemed unsafe to walk at the time of our observations due to steep slopes and the sensitive site conditions.” According to Mr. Wall’s memo, in the Geotechnical Report, “no evidence of erosion was observed within the impacted area and the clear cutting activity did not appear to have a negative impact on the stability of the slope. The observations were made from the top of the bluff and soil samples were not taken due to unsafe conditions and to limit any additional disturbance to the soil surface or slope. Staff and the DNR have reviewed the report and are not recommending any further action.”

4. Additionally, please address the contradictions implicit in “sensitive site conditions” and “to limit any additional disturbance to the soil” and the DNR staff not recommending any further action. It is implied in those statements that erosion is a very real concern. If erosion truly is not a concern, then why would the report use that language?

5. Please explain the decision by DNR staff to accept the landscape architect’s plan for proposed plantings. The vegetation restoration plan is a landscape plan, not a bluff restoration plan.

6. Please explain how, in the “Top Edge” zone within approximately 20’ from the top of the bluff, “The two areas that were lightly disturbed in this zone, and appear to have been adequately stabilized by the homeowners landscape contractor with grass seed and mulch” complies with vegetation planting requirements in the MRCCA. Grass seed and mulch are not consistent with vegetation that was removed. In the event of heavy rain, it is not inconceivable to expect grass seed and mulch to erode. Grass seed implies the possibility of applications of fertilizer, in this case 20’ from the bluff.

7. Please address the homeowner’s comments that, “the area that was cut was no different in size than what was cut in the past and, as in the past, regrowth will occur” relative to healthy growth of trees and shrubs. It is generally accepted that when a tree or shrub is cut to a stump and regrowth occurs, it is not as healthy as the original specimen. In addition, given the proposed outcome of this case, it is reasonable to assume the homeowner will likely trim that same re-growth in future. How does that equate to healthy trees and shrubs? Restoration?

8. As can be seen on the maps, this property is above Pickerel Lake. As can be seen in the photos, this property is visible from the MRCCA. Please explain why this violation of MRCCA regulations is not addressed. As noted above, the homeowner states the area has been cut before. He and Ms. Burke state in the July 11, 2014 letter to Mr. Wall, “We have always planned to trim the trees on the bluff to improve the view...”. The letter also states that more trimming is planned this fall, for the oak trees.

9. Because of the close proximity to Lilydale Park, it appears on the Public Hearing Notice Mailing List that the City of St. Paul was notified. Was the recent landslide in that area considered by the DNR? Title 12-3-9(F)(2) of the Mendota Heights City Code contains the conditional use permit provisions for clear cutting within the Critical Area: Number 2. Clearcutting shall not be used where soil, slope or other watershed conditions are fragile and subject to injury. Mr. Wall states in his August 26, 2014 analysis, “There were several significant landslide events in close proximity to the subject property due to the amount of rain earlier this summer."

After answering these questions, is it still your position that there is nothing further for the DNR to submit to the Mendota Heights City Council on this matter?

The DNR Mississippi River Critical Area Rule Process

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has created very complex development friendly rules that let local government develop on the flood plain, put up billboards, build on bluffs in defined "Critical Areas" on the Mississippi River which will replace simpler rules. In the past this has been an environmental disaster when bluffs fail, like the recent Fairview Hospital slide which was built before the current rules, Brick Yard slide that killed elementary students or flooding developments on the river costing tax payers millions and polluting the river.

DNR Accepts Public Comments until Sept 30th, 2014

For examples see the following comments:

National Park Service Comments (large PDF file)

Our Submitted Friends of the Parks Comments

Information to submit your own comments is available here: MRCCA Rules Process. The resulting revised version is now being made available for general public review, which will include notification of all property owners within the MRCCA boundary. The draft rules are available on the link.

Canadian Pacific Railroad Without Permits Twice Tried to Fill in Pigs Eye Lake Near Heron Rookery

Canadian Pacific Railroad is trying to fill in Pigs Eye Lake without permits needed to increase length of trains in the yard by Pigs Eye. St. Paul residents have stopped industrial development from the rail and barge companies on Pigs Eye for 40 years because of environmental problems brought by the development from filling in flood plain which raised the river levels, pollution and removing habitat for eagles and herons. The current strategy seems to be ignoring the law and building in the flood plain without permits.

CP Rail Pigs Eye Lake Letter to the Editor - Saint Paul Pioneer Press

I appreciate your giving front page attention to CP's proposed impacts to our National and Regional Parks, Pig's Eye Lake, and the residential neighborhood. Unfortunately the story left out some key details. State and City Regulations prohibit the proposal. R-1 residential zoning does not allow rail yards. The MN DNR designates Pig's Eye a Natural Environment Lake (MN Wetland Regulations). St Paul Critical Area regulations prohibit any structure (steel piling wall) within 200 feet of the OHW. The wall runs right to the water's edge. State and City Critical Area regulations prohibit expansion of existing commercial and industrial in the State designated Urban Open Space District.

This proposal will increase noise and reduce safety. The proposal is part of CP's plan to double the daily number of cars in this and other yards by closing yards and shifting those cars to the protected wetlands of our waterfront. Doubling of the cars will increase noise and will increase the traffic into the yard. It will also negatively impact safety. Doubling the volume of a mix of hazardous and flammable materials abutting the lake shore and planned regional park trail and in close proximity to the single family residential neighborhood, significantly increases the risks to environment, homeowners, workers, park, and trail users. Relocating hazardous and flammable materials from other locations and concentrating them in a residential neighborhood on our waterfront is foolhardy at best. It is also prohibited by State and City regulations.

We must avoid "death by a thousand cuts" to our National Park and riverfront neighborhoods. Saint Paul and the State of Minnesota should enforce the Critical Area and wetland protections they have adopted to protect these resources.

Tom Dimond

St. Paul Bikeways Plan Adds 200+ Miles

St. Paul has a Bikeways Plan up for comment that adds over 200 miles to its current bike routes. Public comment until April 30th, check the city website link in the headline.

"Park Notes" Newsletter March 2014:

  • Parks Lose a Friend: David M. Lilly, Board Member, Died Feb 12
    David encouraged beautification of parks along with increasing access to the Mississippi River by citizens.

  • Volunteer for Park Patrol in Como Regional Parks
    Looking for several people to help at Como Park to create a safe and welcoming environment for park visitors.

  • St. Paul Bikeways Plan
    Public comment is due by April 30 for a city wide Bikeways Plan. The plan recommends developing 214 additional miles of bikeways for a total of 358 miles.

  • Shirley Erstad, New Executive Director of the Friends
    Get to know our new Director, read her bio, meet her at the Tree Sale!

  • Elm Trees Past, Present, Future
    The St. Paul Tree Advisory Panel tracks Elms in the city. with a project by students from the University of St. Thomas to promote the value of large trees and encourage their care and preservation.

Current Issues:

  • Changes in the City of St. Paul Park Land Leasing: Past leasing abuses for private benefit led to a restriction of a five year lease limit on park land. The City wishes to change this time limit to encourage private capital investment in park infrastructure such as restaurants, marinas, etc.

  • Ford Plant Development: will it have parks, trails, how is it configured?
    The Ford plant site is 148 acres and will be redeveloped after testing for pollution problems. The Ford truck plant buildings are currently being demolished. There should be parkland available from the development. We are monitoring the public process.

  • Designated park land zoning in St. Paul: In St. Paul's comprehensive plan parks are to be zoned as park land instead of zoning of park lands for other uses.

  • Park land dedication in St. Paul and other cities: How are the new MN Legislature statutes on park land dedication to be applied to MN Charter Cities and other cities.

  • Dickerman Park: Will it get funding through the Central Corridor transit funds?
    September: One landowner next to the park will remove encroachments from a previous school tenant.

  • 35E Cayuga project pedestrian and bicycle access:
    Gateway Trail bridge removed, what mitigation needs to be done to connect neighborhoods on both sides of the freeway.

  • Arden Hills Army Training Site (AHATS), (formerly TCAAP) The last large open property in Ramsey County is now being surplused by the Federal General Services Administration (GSA). Part is used by the MN National Guard.
    • 2013: A 49 acre wildlife corridor is to be transferred to Ramsey County for a wild life corrider to AHATS.
    • 2010: Negotiations for a 110 acre North-South trail right of way between AHATS and the surplused property underway.
    • 2008: 113 acres of property along Rice Creek was transferred to Ramsey County and is open as a park with a canoe route!

Mississippi River Corridor Plan

AKA "The Great River Passage Master Plan" is up for public comment. The plan links, topics and public comment period dates are at The plan has good things and bad in our view, please check out our comments (PDF). The plan will affect the Mississippi River front, bluff and flood plain developments for decades.

St. Paul Park Land Dedication Ordinance

In 2007, the City of St. Paul passed an ordinance requiring that new development in the city contribute either cash or land for the park system. This requirement helps provide for the increased need for recreation opportunities, parks, and open spaces that accompany new development. The 2007 ordinance based its requirements on the number of new parking spaces that are provided by the new development. The ordinance is now being amended and that requirement for new parking will be changed. Most of the municipalities in Minnesota have parkland dedication ordinances.

There was a public hearing before the Planning Commission on February 10 regarding the amendments to the parkland dedication ordinance. The Friends made the following recommendations: Currently in the ordinance there is a discount of 2/3 for cash instead of land. We are recommending that there should be no discount.

We also recommend that a 12 percent donation of land (or cash) be made at the time of platting of the land. Currently, the ordinance requires a 2 percent donation at the time of platting and 7 percent at the time of building permits. We believe that a 12 percent donation when the land is platted would be especially helpful on large parcels of lands such as the Ford property. This change would improve the current practice where the city gets little bits of property when the land is platted and then later when building permits are issued.

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Mississippi River Bluff Restoration & Buckthorn Removal

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